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Huskies vs. Zags: As good as college hoops gets
Seattle Times staff columnist
As fearless as a senior, as cool as Jordan, Washington freshman Justin Dentmon — with the outcome of the most important game of his young college career in his hands — took the ball into the teeth of the Gonzaga defense.
He corkscrewed into the lane and dropped a magical floater over Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, drawing a fifth foul on the Gonzaga guard.
Coolly, Dentmon made the free throw, and with a minute to go, Washington led 97-93 and the feeling inside Edmundson Pavilion was seismic.
Since college teams gathered for the first practice two months ago, this is the game every Northwest fan hungered to watch. This was the game you circled on your calendar in April. This is as good as college basketball gets in this state and about as good as it can be anywhere.
Washington-Gonzaga has become the West Coast's great nonconference rivalry. Two Top 20 programs, a mountain pass apart.
Gonzaga, one of college basketball's newest perennials. And Washington, for the third season in a row, expected to be part of the insanity of March.
Every seat was taken on Sunday night, and the building was loud, hot and humming with anticipation. It was March in early December.
College basketball is supposed to feel this way, as if for these 2 ½ sweet, sweet hours, world peace depended on every possession, every jump shot, every contested rebound.
And when Huskies forward Bobby Jones rebounded the magnificent Adam Morrison's final jumper with 5.4 seconds left and made both free throws, the purpled crowd hoarsely hollered, part in celebration, part in sheer relief.
After losing the last seven in this series, Washington beat Gonzaga Sunday night 99-95. But you get the feeling if these two teams played 10 games, each would win five. They are that evenly matched.
When Washington's Joel Smith launched a second-half three that would give the Huskies a late lead, the crowd practically wished the shot into the basket, and the cheer that followed as the ball swished was the sound of pure joy.
The contract for this rivalry ends after next year's game at Gonzaga, and at his weekly news conference last week, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar didn't guarantee that the series would continue.
It has to. Both schools need it. And, more important, the fans demand it.
"It's good for college basketball. It's an exciting game that people want to see," Washington athletic director Todd Turner said above the pregame din. "It's important for us, long term as a program, that we play some national games, and we consider Gonzaga a national game.
"Outside of the conference-driven rivalries, this is probably as natural a geographic rival as we could have. This is a great game. I have no interest in seeing this series end."
This night was as draining as a marathon. One hundred and fifty minutes of ball that sapped every tear and heartbeat and cheer out of all 10,000 that were fortunate to see it live.
It wasn't artistic, but it was fierce. It lacked flow, but not heart.
For Romar's 18th-ranked team, this game was the first real test of the season. After beating up on the likes of Morgan State, American, Idaho and Loyola-Marymount, Washington, which came into the game 6-0, needed something substantial to gauge how well the program has absorbed the losses of Nate Robinson, Will Conroy and Tre Simmons.
It was time to find out something about his team that Romar couldn't discover in the endless hours of practice or the early schedule of cupcakes.
Washington passed the test — barely. It showed that it has the talent and the heart to be as good as last season's team. It showed it could beat a team as good as sixth-ranked Gonzaga with its leader, Brandon Roy, in foul trouble.
Jamaal Williams scored 22 points. Ryan Appleby hit four mammoth threes. And Dentmon showed he is a point guard who can win big games.
The night lived up to the hype. Rivalry games often do. These are the games Washington should be playing. These are the measuring sticks big-time programs need.
"We want to play the North Carolinas, Connecticuts, Kentuckys and Indianas," Turner said. "A lot will depend on what happens to our program. If we continue to be a Top 10, Top 15 program, we need to play a Texas or a Michigan. We need to do that. We need to play a game in New York."
And they need a game with Gonzaga every year for as long as basketball is played.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company