SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—Although Darington Hobson’s left wrist is sore and tender, he’s determined to play with the pain for as long as New Mexico stays in the NCAA field.
“It’s tournament time,” said the Lobos’ leader in points, rebounds and assists. “It’s not going to affect me.”
That’s no longer a surprise to coach Steve Alford, who has watched his once-fragile star evolve into a player capable of coming back from hard hits such as the one that injured his wrist and tailbone during the third-seeded Lobos’ (30-4) perilous first-round victory over Montana.
“Maybe three months ago, it might have been hard for him to get up after that fall,” Alford said. “I think that’s where he’s grown. He’s matured. He’s played through his body not being 100 percent. I don’t think that’s something he was versed at being able to do three months ago.”
Hobson’s evolving toughness is also no shock to Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who once recruited the player now looming as the 11th-seeded Huskies’ biggest obstacle Saturday on their unlikely path to the regional semifinals.
And even without prompting, Romar emphasized his feelings about a second-round matchup seen by many West Coast basketball fans as a referendum on the relative strength of the surging Mountain West and the slumping Pac-10.
“He could play on any team in the Pac-10 and be an impact player in the Pac-10, no doubt about that,” Romar said of Hobson. “I don’t see why he couldn’t do that for any team in the country.”
Yet he’s doing it for the Mountain West, which sent four teams to the NCAAs — twice as many as the Pac-10, which might have had just one entrant if the Huskies (25-9) hadn’t finally started playing up to their potential late in the conference season.
When asked about the leagues’ relative strengths, Hobson and guard Dairese Gary both cracked up, but refused to say what they were thinking, instead telling teammate Roman Martinez to provide a diplomatic response. The Lobos will have a chance to prove what they’re probably thinking against Washington, which only secured an NCAA trip by surging through the Pac-10 tournament.
The Huskies followed up with a first-round win over sixth-seeded Marquette on a late score by senior leader Quincy Pondexter, whose ability to return from an injury hasn’t been questioned. The Lobos’ recent top-10 ranking makes them the toughest opponent yet on Washington’s comeback tour.
“It’s great to be peaking at March,” Pondexter said. “We’ve had some ups and downs in our season. Our backs were against the wall for a lot of it, and we still have that same mindset. I think that’s what’s really propelling us to get these wins. We’re playing really well. Everybody’s emerging and playing their roles.”
Alford compares the stark differences in facing Montana and Washington to the adjustments necessary in last week’s Mountain West tournament. The Lobos faced walk-it-up Air Force in the first game, then transitioned to a fast-paced loss to San Diego State, which plays at the Huskies’ preferred quicker tempo.
While the Huskies have been rolling, the Lobos have been relatively shaky in their last three games, which included the end of their 15-game winning streak at the Aztecs’ hands. Washington’s quiet confidence is no surprise heading into their meeting in an arena that should be full of fans from both schools.
With one more win, Washington’s late-season surge will go from good to great — but Romar won’t allow his team to think beyond New Mexico.
“There’s always been doubters,” Washington guard Venoy Overton said. “The only way you can quiet that is by handling business on the court. We’ve been doubted all season.”