Heading out on a grueling road stretch, the Washington Huskies (17-6, 8-3) were facing a make or break portion of their season. Four games in row at Arizona and the Bay Area would prove whether or not these Dawgs truly belonged near the top of the Pac-10 standings. It wasn't perfect, but Washington managed a two game split, allowing the Huskies to keep pace with conference leaders UCLA (19-4, 8-2 Pac-10).
During the road stretch two players emerged, especially in their seven-point win against the Stanford Cardinal (15-7, 4-7 Pac-10). Both Venoy Overton and Quincy Pondexter proved they could be more than role players, as they stepped up their game after falling behind by double digits and carried Washington to a victory in Palo Alto.
Senior Justin Dentmon experienced foul trouble early on, while Jon Brockman was being hounded in the paint and Isaiah Thomas was struggling to find his touch. Enter Overton and Pondexter. Overton finished with 11 points, five assists and five steals, while Pondexter scored a team high 20 points while also grabbing six rebounds.
"Venoy is the reason why we won that game on Sunday," said Brockman "He came in the game and led the team, gave us energy and was all over the court. He gives us that spark off the bench, and a lot of times he gives us that jump start that we need. I think he's really accepted that role and realizes that his job is as important as anyone else's."
"JD got in foul trouble, so I knew I had to come in and help the team," explained Overton. "We lost the game before that, and we went down by 10, so it was like not again. I went out there and gave it all I could."
It hasn't been easy for Overton to accept the role of a bench player, especially after starting last season. But despite the adjustment, it didn't take long for Overton to embrace his new role and understand the impact he could have on the game.
"I think at first you saw it negatively affect the way he played," explained Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar. "But you never heard him complain, even though you could see it was affecting him. But Venoy is a team guy, and all he cares about is winning, so that didn't last long."
Overton has solidified himself as the Huskies' sixth man, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game while providing Washington with perhaps the most potent three-guard lineup in the Pac-10.
Overton didn't have to look far for advice on making the adjustment from starter to reserve. After an outstanding freshman season and a solid sophomore year, Dentmon was demoted to the bench last season. The experience gives the two guards an appreciation for each other and what they have gone through.
"I talk to JD a lot about how he felt coming off the bench last year. He said he wasn't happy about it, but he couldn't get his head down. He went out there and played well off the bench, and that's what I'm trying to do," explained Overton. "It's hard for most kids that have been starting their whole career to come off the bench. It can be challenging, but at the same time if you're a competitor, you're still going to do the same thing if you're not a starter."
That mindset proved crucial as Overton's play is a big reason why Washington still has it's eyes on a Pac-10 title. But he wasn't alone, as Pondexter provided the Huskies with a much needed scoring punch, amassing 20 points in consecutive games for the first time this season.
"He followed his own shot a couple of times and he followed other guy's misses a couple of times," explained Romar of Pondexter's performance. "This is probably the first year that he's been here that teams aren't keying on him. He doesn't take a lot of bad shots. He's also starting to knock down that 16 and 17 footer."
Pondexter's skills are unquestioned, and this season he's been the definition of a team player. He's shown a willingness to defer when another player has the hot hand, and he's doing the little things like rebounding, playing defense and dishing out assists in order to get the win. However, unlike many players who get praised for their team play, Pondexter has continued to come under criticism for not being the dominant scorer fans want him to be.
"It's frustrating, but I still love it because I think people see a lot in me. For them to actually criticize, it must mean they have high expectations for me, and they actually have love for me deep down inside," explained Pondexter. "I just want to keep improving. I can't worry about what they say, as long as I help the team win."
The numbers don't lie as Pondexter is averaging nearly 11 points per game, ranks second on the team with 5.6 rebounds per game, and is tied for third on the team with 1.9 assists per game. He's also shooting 48 percent from the field and over 70 percent from the free throw line, picking and choosing his moments to score. Pondexter proved in the Huskies' past two games that he can still light up the scoreboard when needed.
"I was just a little more aggressive on the offensive end," Pondexter explained. "It's the second half of Pac-10 play, and I just wanted to come out with a bang. There's a lot riding on this season, and I wanted to show what this team is all about."
It was about this time last season when Pondexter came alive and started to pace the Huskies on offense, something Romar thinks that could happen again.
"This is the time of the year last season where he started to take off, averaging almost 14 points and seven or eight rebounds per game," explained Romar. "Maybe that is the case again this year."
Both Pondexter and Overton proved last week they are much more than role players, and should both have a hand in the success of this team down the home stretch.