LOS ANGELES — If there's any doubt whether Washington viewed Saturday's Pac-10 title game as must-win to make the NCAA tournament, the answer lay in their reaction to every key second-half basket.
Isaiah Thomas flexed his left bicep and posed for TV cameras after a driving layup. Venoy Overton thumped his chest after sinking the game-tying 3-pointer. And Elston Turner pointed to the sky and roared after his go-ahead three gave the Huskies the lead for good.
Left for dead after dropping five of seven conference games in January in perhaps the worst Pac-10 in more than a decade, Washington improbably climbed back into NCAA tournament contention by winning 9 of 11 to close the regular season. Then Saturday, the Huskies completed their ascension by removing all doubt, rallying for a 79-75 victory over top-seeded Cal to win the Pac-10 tournament and claim the conference's automatic bid.
"We're going to be able to sleep tonight, finally," Washington's Quincy Pondexter said. "We've been going to sleep at night watching SportsCenter, hearing if we were in or out. But at the end of the day we told ourselves, if we step up and take care of business, we won't need to worry about it."
If the prevailing theory before the Pac-10 tournament was that Washington (24-9) could earn an at-large bid with an appearance in the title game, that had changed by tip-off Saturday afternoon as a result of some of this week's other results. Houston's win over UTEP in Saturday's Conference USA title game took a berth away from a bubble team, while Mississippi State and Minnesota greatly enhanced their at-large hopes later in the day with marquee victories over Vanderbilt and Purdue, respectively.
There are some who believe that Cal's lack of marquee non-conference wins could put the regular season Pac-10 champs in jeopardy of being left out of the field, but Bears coach Mike Montgomery scoffed at that notion. He highlighted his team's 13-5 Pac-10 record and the fact that Cal was without Theo Robertson for early-season losses against top-10 foes Ohio State, Syracuse and New Mexico.
"It would be astounding to me if the regular season Pac-10 champ wasn't in the tournament," Montgomery said. "That would be incredible. It would set a precedent that's unheard of. If people would do their homework, the games that we lost against the top-10, none of which were at home, we didn't have our people.
"It's not even, in a way, almost worth commenting on. It completely negates the purpose of conference, to play 18 games and win it (and not be selected). I just think that's talk."
In a season typified by ugly blowouts and underachievement in the Pac-10, Saturday's title game actually delivered some entertainment. Washington and Cal both looked the part of NCAA tournament teams, momentum swinging back and forth between the two throughout the second half.
A 14-0 Cal run propelled the Bears to a 66-61 lead with six minutes to go, but the Huskies seized momentum right back, tying the game on Overton's 3-pointer and taking the lead for good on Turner's on the following possession.
Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas led Washington with 18 and 16 points, but the key to the Huskies' turnaround has been the development of their supporting cast. Matthew Bryan-Amaning has developed into a double-double threat on the low block, Justin Holiday has improved as a scorer and provided lock-down defense, and Venoy Overton has shown a knack for knocking down clutch shots.
Unlike other NCAA tournament teams facing a must-win situation for the first time this season, Washington will enter the postseason prepared for that pressure.
"The anxiety you have as a team, knowing that you're one and done, is something that's been going on with our team for quite a while," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. "It helped us in this tournament, and it may help us next week."