Packing a punch

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Matthew Bryan-Amaning stood courtside with a few moments to kill after checking in at the scorer’s table. He had nowhere to go and the Washington pep band was finishing up a song as a timeout expired, so he decided to join in and play some air drums.

A little more than seven minutes remained and the Huskies led New Mexico by 22 points. There was work to be done, yes, but 11th-seeded Washington was all but assured of a second-round East Regional victory and Bryan-Amaning, a junior forward, was going to enjoy every minute of it.

Quincy Pondexter and the Huskies can ejoy their Sweet 16 run a little more after their midseason struggles.

“This time of year, every moment of the game is just fun for me,” Bryan-Amaning said. “Playing at such a high level and being able to be out there and relaxed at the same time is just real fun.”

Fun indeed. When he returned to the court, he blocked a shot at the rim and, with 3:44 remaining, he finished a break with a one-handed dunk that put an emphatic stamp on an 82-64 rout of the third-seeded Lobos. All that was left was clearing the bench and making travel plans for a Sweet 16 trip to Syracuse, N.Y.

What a far cry from January, when the Huskies had lost five of seven and there was talk the Pac-10 would send only one team, its tourney champion, to the NCAA tournament.

“For us to be in the position that we are is a testament to how well this team came together and fought through adversity,” said Huskies senior forward Quincy Pondexter, who scored 18 points to lead four Washington players in double figures.

Heading into play Saturday, there was plenty of talk about the relative strengths of the conferences involved in this game. The Mountain West sent four teams to the NCAAs and thinks it’s underappreciated. The Pac-10 got two teams in and thinks it’s getting a bad rap.

With Washington advancing – and eighth-seeded California prepping for a Sunday showdown with Duke – score a big win for the Pac-10.

“The league was stronger than people gave it credit for,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said, “but once those non-conference losses happened, people made a decision and judgment and decided let’s not even pay attention to that conference anymore.

“Fortunately we’re still playing, and we hope that Cal will still be playing as well.

Pondexter agrees: “It’s not a pushover league,” he said.

It was all Washington on Saturday, beginning with an 18-6 run just beyond the midway point of the first half. The Huskies shot 51.5 percent from the floor in the opening 20 minutes and made half of their 10 3-point attempts. They held the Lobos below 40 percent shooting and limited Darington Hobson, New Mexico’s leader in scoring, rebounding and assists, to just 11 points and two assists.

“[That’s] an outstanding basketball team that we just played and got beat by,” Lobos coach Steve Alford said. “We’ve played 35 games this year, and I think our team would agree that that’s the best team that’s played against us.”

Washington heads to Syracuse having won nine in a row. Two months ago, the Huskies were 3-5 in the conference after back-to-back losses to UCLA and USC, the loss to the Trojans being a particularly embarrassing 87-61 setback.

Those defeats must have seemed like distant memories in the second half when Washington twice led by 23, allowing Romar to begin to empty his bench early.

Even sophomore walk-on Brendan Sherrer, a member of Washington’s “Dawg Pack” rooting section a year ago, got into the game for the final minute. The pro-Huskies crowd cheered loudly when Sherrer entered the game and pleaded for the Huskies to get him the ball.

He didn’t score, but Romar was happy to have been able to reward him with some playing time.

“It’s tremendous,” Romar said. “You can just see the joy on their faces.”

Yes, there is joy in the Pac-10 again.

Matt Romig is a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Matt a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Mar 20, 2010