UW readies for finals rubber match with Cal

LOS ANGELES -- Washington’s season looked as if it was already over midway through its conference schedule. Following a loss to USC, gathered in the Trojans' visitor's locker room just two miles up the road from the Staples Center, Quincy Pondexter got up and told his teammates it was only uphill from here.

The Huskies had dropped five of their last seven games and had just lost by 26 points by a team ineligible to play in the postseason.

“The landmark moment for us was after the USC game,” said Pondexter. “At the end of the game guys knew it couldn’t get any worse. And we started playing the right way. ... I think we’ve bought into everything offensively and defensively since then and we’ve been playing much better basketball.”

Since its Jan. 23 loss to USC, Washington (23-9) has won 11 of its last 13 games and six games in a row heading into today's Pac-10 Tournament championship game against Cal (23-9). After being left for dead as late as last week, the Huskies can now claim the conference’s automatic bid or at least make a case for an at-large berth with a strong showing on national television.

The marquee final between the two best teams in the conference is the first bright spot of what has been an otherwise down year for the Pac-10, which was perceived as a one-bid league when the tournament started after sending six teams last season. Washington and Cal split the season series, winning on each other’s court by double digits. Both were perceived as the class of the conference in the preseason, when they were ranked in the top 14 the first week of the season.

“These are two teams that have really, really competed,” said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. “I think [Cal] is better from the first time we’ve played. I think they’ve gotten into a great rhythm were they are playing very good basketball. Those three 1,000-point career scorers have been through a lot of games and a lot of situations and they play with great calm and don’t get rattled. They do a tremendous job.”

Romar was referring to Cal’s senior triumvirate of Jerome Randle, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson. A fourth senior, Jamal Boykin, will likely reach the 1,000-point plateau as well before his career wraps up.

“When you look at their seniors, they have scored 5,600 points combined between the four guys, I think the next closest in the Pac-10 is about 2,500 points for graduating seniors,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “Those guys are special.”

The game will feature five of the top ten scorers in the league (Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas for Washington and Randle, Christopher and Robertson for Cal) and California and Washington are ranked in the top two in the conference in scoring offense and scoring margin. Judging from their first two games the Pac-10 final could easily turn into a rout for whichever team feels more at home. Cal has certainly made it a point to run teams off court as of late, winning nine of its last 10 games by double digits.

“We have a lot of similarities,” said Pondexter. “It’s always a tough battle and whoever executes better wins. We’re both competing for a championship so that adds a great dynamic to this series, but it’s always fun playing against them.”