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Originally published Friday, January 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Huskies were good, but not good enough

They played with a cacophonous desperation. Played as if their season depended upon it, because quite possibly it did. Spencer Hawes scored on...

Seattle Times staff columnist

They played with a cacophonous desperation. Played as if their season depended upon it, because quite possibly it did.

Spencer Hawes scored on a jump hook and the gym got loud. Ryan Appleby hit a three and raised his hands to rally the sellout crowd even louder. And Quincy Pondexter spun once, twice and scored on a spectacular drive.

The Washington Huskies played as fast as the Phoenix Suns. They ran almost from tip to buzzer. Ran up and down the court at Hec Ed as if it were the track at Hayward Field.

They responded to the tough love from their coach. Awoke from their Sunday slumber at UCLA.

They made backcuts like the old Bill Bradley Princeton teams. They moved the ball as if they'd played together every day since they were in preschool. They were brilliant blurs.

Pondexter beat Mustafa Shakur with a behind-the-back dribble and drive. And Hawes hit a jumper off glass.

In a game vaguely reminiscent of their 102-100 loss to Alabama-Birmingham in the 2004 NCAA tournament, Washington ran practically stride for stride with seventh-ranked, running-and-gunning Arizona.

For 35 minutes, Washington was very good. But for 40 minutes, Arizona, winner of 12 in a row, was even better. For 35 minutes, Washington played well enough to breathe hope into its conference season. But in the final five minutes, Arizona stole that hope.

In a spurt that happened so fast it was hard to comprehend, Arizona scored seven straight points, took a 94-86 lead and sucked the air out of Hec Ed.

In three minutes that might be the difference between making the NCAA tournament or playing in the NIT for Washington, Jawann McClellan hit a three. Former Roosevelt star Marcus Williams scored on a baseline scoop, then passed to Ivan Radenovic for a layup.

Washington was good in Thursday's 96-87 loss to Arizona, but not good enough.

Not as good as Williams' inside-out 22 points. Not as good as Chase Budinger's smooth-as-glass 23 points. Not as good as veteran Shakur's 21 points and 11 assists.

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In back-to-back conference games, Washington has played the Pac-10's two best teams and lost twice. The Huskies are a young team in need of a growth spurt.

Three games into the conference season, these Huskies still haven't learned to play defense. They don't play with that same kind of ferocious denial that coach Lorenzo Romar's teams have played with the past three seasons.

They don't play with the same kind of hunger. Sometimes defense is wasted on the young. For all its offensive brilliance, Washington can't win without "D."

Arizona shot 65 percent from the field and made 11 of 20 three-point shots. The Wildcats scorched Washington's too-passive 2-3 zone. And Romar stayed in that zone much too long.

And now, at 0-3 in the conference, the young Huskies have lost the luxury of time. This baby-faced team that played so well for so long against the Wildcats has run out of wiggle room. It has to grow up — now.

Romar will point to their 0-5 conference start in a 2003-04 that ended with a trip to the NCAAs. But the Pac-10 wasn't as strong then. This 0-3 hole feels deeper than '04.

After Saturday's home game with Arizona State, Washington plays brutal road games against Stanford, California and Washington State, and a 1-6 conference start would be unsalvageable.

The Huskies are getting better. Romar will improve them week to week, but by losing three games they have added another opponent — time — to their schedule.

They will get better because Romar will continue to challenge them and shake them the way he did against Arizona.

Understanding the urgency of the season, Romar gave his starting lineup a San Andreas-sized shakeup. On a hoop Richter scale, this was about a 6.2. From a coaching standpoint, it was brilliant.

The coach wasn't happy with freshman Pondexter's defense and replaced him with freshman Phil Nelson. And he hadn't been happy with the way sophomore Justin Dentmon was running the team. Appleby, a junior, started in Dentmon's place.

Pondexter, playing with renewed fire, had the game of his young life. He made 10 of 16 shots for a team-high 25 points. And Nelson, just beginning to play with a calm confidence, hit 6 of 8, including 4 of 5 treys, and finished with 16 points in 30 minutes.

The Huskies stayed with the richly talented 'Cats for a phat 35 minutes before their defense collapsed on itself.

The Huskies were good on Thursday night. But not good enough. And that might become the story of their season.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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