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Thursday, February 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Brewer

UW's frustration mounts as odds dwindle

Seattle Times staff columnist

In a season of rampant humbling, this moment offered new misery.

First Washington lost the game. Then it temporarily lost its home. The competition was over, a 65-61 Washington State victory, a Cougars sweep this season, and Edmundson Pavilion turned into Beasley Coliseum.

Cougars fans, who made up roughly one-fourth of the crowd, exclaimed "This is our state!" on one side of the arena and screamed their "C-O-U-G-S!" chant on the other. The Huskies have experienced some lows this season -- three blowout defeats, a 1-6 start in Pac-10 play -- but this was different. For a few minutes Wednesday night, it felt as if they no longer had a place.

And in this moment, the reality of this runaway season emerged.

UW needs a miracle now.

After three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, after two consecutive Sweet 16 berths, the Huskies have run out of good chances to make something special happen this season. They still have chances, but not good ones.

Before this game, coach Lorenzo Romar acknowledged a loss would put his team in a vault with little air. Here they are now, trapped.

From now on, every game is do-or-die. The Huskies badly needed to beat the Cougars on Wednesday, needed it almost as much as Britney Spears needs guidance. In their season's most important week, with two Top 10 teams on the slate, they needed to make their biggest statement of the season. They couldn't.

In the final minute Wednesday night, they possibly stood one play from victory. They couldn't make it. Despite doing enough to win, they lost. And although Romar said he was "proud of our guys' effort," he must scramble for that miracle now.

The Huskies fell to 6-8 in the Pac-10. They must finish at least 9-9 in the conference just to be considered for the NCAA tournament. They have five games remaining, four of them against Top 25 foes. They probably need to win four of those games.

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They'll be swimming with piranhas, hoping not to be snacked on, for the remainder of the season. The next carnivorous creature: No. 7 Pittsburgh, a physical, disciplined and defensive-minded foe that figures to be a terrible matchup, especially on the road.

For all the Huskies have done to get back in the hunt, they are now realizing how hard this climb is. They had won five of six entering the game. Nevertheless, they had an RPI rating of No. 75, according to hoops guru Ken Pomeroy. That's about 35 spots from being able to feel good about your NCAA tournament chances.

Furthermore, Washington still lacks a signature victory. The Oregon win was nice, but it came with an asterisk because of Aaron Brooks' suspension. The Stanford win was solid, but not attention-grabbing. And that impressive December victory over Louisiana State doesn't seem impressive anymore because LSU fell apart.

The Huskies are 2-5 versus top-50 RPI teams, and three of those five defeats (at UCLA, at WSU and at Arizona) were blowouts. They must make up for those somehow.

The game Wednesday came packed with the fresh oddity that the Huskies needed the Cougars. This week turned into a landmark moment for Washington State after it received its highest-ever national ranking (No. 10). Washington should've been celebrating the achievement, too. The game gave the Huskies a chance to beat a Top 10 team, which would've been their elusive statement victory.

It had all the elements of a great game. The road team played up to its reputation. The home team, up and down all season, played up to the level of its competition.

The game had flair (how about Cougars forward Ivory Clark's dunk over Jon Brockman?). It had a back-and-forth struggle, as nine lead changes showcased. It had unlikely heroes such as Cougars guard Taylor Rochestie, who scored 16 points, well above his average of 2.4 points a game. And the star players did their part, too.

But the Huskies were left feeling this way: Good effort but not good enough. In the previous three years, that would've been OK, just a lesson to learn before the tournament. This year, it's disheartening because they're scrambling.

"If we continue in these last few games to put forth that type of effort, we can hold our heads up high," Romar said.

Maybe so. But without a string of W's to match, they won't be able to hold out their hands for a Big Dance invitation.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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