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Originally published February 18, 2012 at 6:26 PM | Page modified February 18, 2012 at 10:08 PM

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UW takes some big steps in win over Arizona

Washington (19-8, 12-3 in the Pac-12) remains in position to win the league's regular-season title, and just as important, it completed a two-game sweep of the Wildcats.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The Washington men's basketball team, jostling for recognition from the NCAA tournament selection committee, unleashed a new weapon Saturday afternoon against the stunned, defenseless and utterly enraged Arizona Wildcats.

Aziz N'Diaye, coast to coast, with seemingly one dribble.

The 7-footer may have traveled, carried, double-dribbled and invented a new violation in his rousing first-half voyage to the basket, but the referees didn't see it or couldn't recognize it. Maybe they were caught up in the audacity of N'Diaye's adventure, too. The big man finished with a dunk. The sellout crowd went crazy. Arizona coach Sean Miller barked until he received a technical foul.

Insane effort. Insane results.

The Huskies prospered with that simple formula and captured a critical 79-70 victory at Edmundson Pavilion. Washington (19-8, 12-3 in the Pac-12) remains in position to win the league's regular-season title, and just as important, it completed a two-game sweep of the Wildcats. The sweep represents a major chip as the Huskies attempt to enhance their mediocre résumé for one of the NCAA tournament's 37 at-large bids. If both teams remain equal and the committee must decide which team is worthy, it would be asinine to take Arizona over Washington now. The Huskies have proved themselves better, barely but definitively.

"I think it's big," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of the tournament implications of sweeping Arizona (19-9, 10-5), a perennial national power that currently sits besides the Huskies on the tournament bubble. "Their résumé is respected and valued. So I think that definitely helps us."

In need of their finest performance, the Huskies were up to the task. Terrence Ross, their smooth yet streaky scorer, was a consistent force throughout the game. He didn't wait until the second half to explode. He scored 15 points in the first half and finished with 25, thrilling the crowd with an array of athleticism, sweet shooting and hustle. His co-star, freshman Tony Wroten Jr., attacked the basket without relent, scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds despite making only 8 of 22 shots. And when the Huskies needed offense at the end, guard C.J. Wilcox emerged, made two three-pointers and scored nine of his 11 points in the second half.

But most striking was the focus and sense of desperation the Huskies showed. In a true must-win game, this team played more like the team we thought it could be in the preseason. These Huskies vacillate as much as any team Romar has ever had, swaying from good to bad to incomprehensible (often within the same game), so you shouldn't make declarative statements about them. But through it all, they've arrived at mid-February with an opportunity to play meaningful games in March.

They're not ideal, but they have improved. For once, the Huskies refused to play in spurts and turned in a complete 40-minute performance against a quality opponent. And if you didn't think those two hours looked like two teams playing Big Dance-caliber basketball, then you suffer from warped expectations.

"We've played some good games, but they've been so scattered," Romar said. "They haven't been consistent.

"This time, I saw a little maturity, a little growth. We didn't let up. That's a big step for us."

Not as big as the steps N'Diaye took on his coast-to-coast journey, but close. When you play this hard, this right, breaks — or no-calls — turn out in your favor.

"I hadn't seen the coast to coast," Romar said, laughing, of N'Diaye's move. "He keeps telling me he can do all this stuff. Maybe we're not using him right."

Don't expect N'Diaye to bring the ball up the court anytime soon. His work in the paint is far more vital. He scored eight points, snatched 12 rebounds and swatted four shots. Everything flowed the way it should for the Huskies, from Ross and Wroten's aggressiveness, to Abdul Gaddy's table-setting, to the willingness of every player to accept his role, no matter how small.

It was a fitting way to celebrate the final home game of seniors Darnell Gant and Brendan Sherrer, who have always done their jobs without complaint. Gant, who plays a much bigger role than Sherrer, kissed his hand and touched the W at center court as he said goodbye. A few minutes later, Sherrer did the same.

"It looked like a good idea," Sherrer joked afterward.

It was an afternoon full of good ideas, good intentions and good fun. Wroten punctuated the effort by dunking on Arizona forward Angelo Chol in the second half. Chol, a player the Huskies recruited, is four inches taller than the 6-5 Wroten, but the fearless guard lifted the basketball high with his left hand, Statue of Liberty-style, a la James Worthy, and crammed the dunk in the defender's face.

"It was just funny because it was Chol," Wroten said. "You know, he wanted to come here and didn't. And I got him."

It should be a rule now that Wroten has put two defenders on a poster this season: Never challenge Wroten when he has a clear path to the basket.

And, um, here's a new one: Never doubt N'Diaye's skills on a breakaway.

For a change, the Huskies' unpredictability was a good thing.

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

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer

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