If Charles Dickens wrote this tale of two teams, it would have started as bleakly as the game, for it was the worst of halves. And it was the best of halves.
The day began strangely when the grimace of a security dog was interpreted as a bomb threat. The reaction of the bomb-sniffer to a condiment cart outside of Cox Arena triggered the worst in this paranoid era. Following a nebulous Homeland Security warning earlier this week that the NCAA Tournament sites might be targeted, FBI and ATF agents cordoned off the venue before the first game in San Diego. The sky wasn't falling, though, it was just your customary mustard and ketchup.
Ten hours later, the shots weren't falling either. Six minutes into what looked like a high school tourney game, Washington and Utah State were knotted at 2-2. The Huskies missed nine of their first 10 shots. The Aggies clanked their first four attempts, then turned the ball over on the next four possessions. It wasn't until each team's designated scorer, Jamaal Williams and Chaz Spicer, came off the bench that the scoreboard operator was forced to use more than one finger.
"We were sitting around the hotel," said Brandon Roy following the 75-61 triumph. "The delay built the anxiety a little bit."
Coach Lorenzo Romar had warned that teams often come out tentative, like sparring partners with glancing blows. The Aggies, who hit a school-record 229 3-pointers this season, missed all six of their attempts from the arc en route to a season-low 20 points in the first half. The Dawgs were almost as shaky, shooting less than 40 percent from the field for 29 points, one better than their season worst.
But the Huskies certainly weren't lacking in effort. In the first 12 minutes, their active, switching defense had forced as many turnovers as points allowed—nine. The Ags finished the half with 14 turnovers, two more than their season average, as the Dawgs pounced and converted them into 17 points. If not for Nate Harris tallying a double-double in the first 19 minutes, Utah State may have been too embarrassed to come out of the locker room after the break.
Both teams must have seen themselves in the mirror at halftime and remembered how good they were at the end of the regular season. The disjointed squads did such an about face in the second half, it was almost as if CBS had switched the feed and we were watching different teams.
Shooting nearly 60 percent from the field, the first-round foes put on an offensive clinic in the final 20 minutes. The Aggies hit 3 of 7 attempts from the arc as they doubled their scoring total from the first stanza. But the Dawgs beat them at their own game. Accurate with 9 of 15 3-ball bombs after the intermission, Washington tied its season-best with 12 makes on a season-high 27 attempts.
"I thought we really had them messed up in the first half, for lack of a better word," said assistant coach Jim Shaw, whose name is surfacing for some head coaching vacancies. "And then I really thought they settled in the second half. We couldn't stop them at all. We also got in a pretty good rhythm offensively.
"So it was really crazy. It was like in the first half neither of us could score. In the second half neither of could stop the other one. It was like we made agreements with each other," he added with a chuckle.
Everything is little more humorous when you survive and advance in the Big Dance. After the Huskies took a 53-37 lead on Ryan Appleby's lone trey of the night, the WAC tourney finalists responded with a 9-0 run to make it interesting. The Aggies displayed an impressive passing game by slicing up the UW zone. But Roy put his stamp on the victory by scoring 10 points and feeding Justin Dentmon and Mike Jensen for a pair of 3-balls over the next five minutes. Dentmon and Bobby Jones, two of the four Huskies in double figures, put the game away at the line.
Nowhere was the disparity in athleticism between the No. 2 Pac-10 and the No. 2 WAC team more evident than in the form of Brandon Roy. The least well-known of all the First-Team All-Americans, Roy controlled the game with 28 points, five assists, and three steals. Unfortunately, his contorting drives and 11-for-19 shooting efficiency, including 4 of 7 from the arc, was missed by much of the country as the last game of the day was pushed back to an 11 p.m. EST tip-off. As with so many things in life, the East Coast has no idea what it's missing.
When Utah State cut the lead again to nine points with just over five minutes remaining, Romar called for a timeout. The coach gave his catalyst the green light, which usually means lights out for the opponent. The Pac-10 Player of the Year followed with two treys and two assists.
"In the huddle coach just said, 'B, it's time to start being more aggressive. This is the time you've got to step up. You don't necessarily have to score, but try to make plays for teammates,'" Roy recalled. "They were playing a zone and kept shooting to the top guy, and I was open in the corner. So I just had to have confidence in myself to keep taking the shots"
After hitting 10 or more treys in each of the four games prior to the Arizona trip, the Huskies knocked down a number of open looks from the perimeter. Dentmon (3 of 4) and Jones (3 of 5), two of the team's streakier 3-ball threats, got in on the act.
Yet the Huskies' defense is its most important factor for a big showing in the Big Dance. After the first-half effectiveness, which was no doubt aided by some Aggie nervousness, the Dawgs struggled in the latter half of the second frame. Jaycee Carroll, the titular mascot of a team laden with JC transfers, got loose for 15 points after the break. The UW zone, which has not been terrible effective this season, will need to rotate more quickly if Romar is to use it in more than a token fashion against Illinois on Saturday.
The perimeter pressure was strong until some late-game fatigue, which may have been the result of a tightened seven-man rotation until the final minute. The savvy Aggies caught the post defense out of position on several occasions as Harris finished with 19 points and Spicer added 12. But the Dawgs answered the call when it mattered most as Harris and Spicer were kept off the scoreboard in the final four minutes and USU was limited to a single free throw in the last two minutes.
"We changed up our defenses a little bit and gave them some different looks," said Jensen. "They were never really able to make a big run and come at us. We were able to keep stretching the lead and finally put them away."
On a day when a handful of mid-major teams made major statements, the Dawgs stepped into the second round. After two No. 5 seeds got dumped in earlier action, the Huskies swatted away the upset predictions by taking the lead for good with 12:40 remaining in the first half. A Dentmon triple erased the only Aggie lead of the game. In his first NCAA Tournament outing, Dentmon played with poise. An encouraging sign as the Illinois native prepares to take on the Fighting Illini.
The 5-foot-11 freshman finished with no turnovers, four assist and 11 points. And for a kid of Dickensian stature, that ain't half bad.