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Originally published December 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 9, 2006 at 12:15 AM

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Husky men's basketball get first big test against Zags

They were all 14-year-old high-school freshmen the last time somebody else did what they will be asked to do tonight. Not since Feb. 19, 2003, has any...

Seattle Times staff reporter

SPOKANE — They were all 14-year-old high-school freshmen the last time somebody else did what they will be asked to do tonight.

Not since Feb. 19, 2003, has any opponent come here and beaten Gonzaga on its home floor. The University of Portland was the last team to do it, winning 72-68 almost four years ago.

Since then, 44 opponents have left defeated, giving Gonzaga the longest home-winning streak in the nation. In that streak, 32 victories have been since the Bulldogs moved into their new arena, the McCarthey Athletic Center.

So that's the welcome mat Washington's four freshmen, three of whom might start tonight, will get for the first road game of their collegiate careers.

And while the four obviously won't be alone in taking on Gonzaga, the Huskies don't figure to be able to win without the freshmen playing well.

"A lot of people would call it intimidating, but we just look at it as a challenge," one of those freshmen, center Spencer Hawes, said of Gonzaga's winning ways at home. "It's something that is going to be a great test for our team."

It's a test that, in case you haven't heard, won't be held for at least the next year or so, a turn of events that figures to make this game even more heated.

Today

Washington @ Gonzaga,

8 p.m., FSN

But that's just one of the many subplots tonight.

For UW coach Lorenzo Romar, his most pressing issue tonight is seeing how his young team reacts to its first road game. After tonight, the Huskies won't play another road game until Pac-10 play Dec. 28 at USC.

"Because we have such a young team, we do need to know what it's like," said Romar, whose team is 7-0 this season, all in Edmundson Pavilion. "And we really know how to pick it too, because I don't know if there will be two or three more hostile environments than Spokane."

The Huskies found that out two years ago when a team that eventually ended up in the Sweet 16 with Nate Robinson, Bobby Jones, etc., lost 99-87 in Spokane. Only one player who played in that game, walk-on guard Brandon Burmeister, will be in uniform tonight (Hans Gasser was in uniform, but didn't play).

"One thing I'll tell our young guys is we can't let the fans get to us," said one of the team's grizzled vets, sophomore forward Jon Brockman. "Then Gonzaga has the advantage. We just have to come play and stay focused and don't acknowledge that they are there."

For Gonzaga, the game tonight is about rebounding from the surprising defeat Tuesday at Washington State and continuing to show that there is not only life after Adam Morrison, but it might be even better.

Gonzaga won eight of its first nine games, including victories over Texas and North Carolina, before the upset in Pullman.

But Gonzaga hasn't lost two consecutive since December 2002, another streak it wants to keep intact.

"Every time you have a loss, you don't want to lose another one, so we are all super motivated to play on Saturday and face the Huskies," said Gonzaga forward Josh Heytvelt.

Heytvelt's rapid improvement as a sophomore is one reason the Bulldogs have quickly reclaimed their place as a top-20 team. At the beginning of the season, the Zags were unranked as observers wondered how Gonzaga would recover from the loss of Morrison and J.P. Batista.

UW coaches say Gonzaga is more balanced offensively and better defensively this season.

"Last year, they had a chance to win it all," Romar said. "I didn't know if they would have a chance to win it all this year. But they haven't really taken a step back to this point."

Gonzaga players say they are relishing having a bit more freedom this year without Morrison and Batista dominating.

"It's way more fun out there playing," said guard Derek Raivio. "When you've got the ball in your hands, you can make more decisions and be more of a basketball player than being just a robot getting the ball to J.P. and [Morrison]. It's a lot more fun for a lot of the guys."

The Huskies, though, have their own idea of what fun could be tonight — giving the boisterous home fans little to cheer about.

"It's going to be different for our freshmen to go to a place where they will get a lot of boos," said point guard Justin Dentmon. "I'm just looking forward to having the gym be complete silence. Having the crowd be quiet."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. Read his blogs on Washington football and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.

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