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January 21, 2011In a game for first place, this one didn't disappoint. It was more like a heavyweight title fight than a basketball game.
Arizona and Washington both came into the game with just one loss in Pacific-10 Conference play. Arizona was led by 6-foot-8 sophomore Derrick Williams, while Washington's cataylist was 5-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas was going to do whatever he had to do to win this game, which he showed when he dove to save a loose ball and wound up sliding on his stomach toward the tunnel in the second half.
"I knew the rebound was right there, so I'm gonna do whatever it takes to get that," Thomas said, "And we got that and then Darnell (Gant) knocked down a big 3."
Thomas finished with his second straight big-time performance for No. 20 Washington, this time collecting 22 points, 10 assists and six rebounds while just committing one turnover.
It all led to the Huskies defeating the Wildcats, 85-68, Thursday night in newly named Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in a game that kept Washington alone in first place in the Pac-10.
After saving the ball in the pivotal play with just over 11 minutes remaining, Thomas ran back on to the court, got the ball back then found Gant for the open 3-pointer, which gave Washington a nine-point lead.
"If you can save the ball save it," Matthew Bryan-Amaning said of the play by Thomas.
That play was the knockout blow to the Arizona Wildcats, who never came closer than five points again.
"Two scrappy teams trying to defend their territory," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of the physical nature of the game.
Emotions were flying high all game, which started early in the first half when Huskies' 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye was fouled by Kyryl Natyazhko going for a loose ball. There was a lot of jawing between teams from that point on in the game, but it didn't start there.
"All week, I read some things on Twitter, they were saying some things and I was just holding it in," Thomas said. "It was just two good teams talking and trying to win the ballgame."
Thomas was coming off a 27-point, 13-assist effort against California last Saturday in what Romar called arguably his best performance as a Husky.
"Isaiah Thomas is at such a high level," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "He'll break you down and will them to a victory."
That is exactly what Thomas did in this game as it became obvious he was not going to let the Huskies lose on their homecourt.
For three-quarters of the game, it looked like it was going to go down to the wire.
The Huskies led 36-31 at halftime, but that lead didn't last long as the Wildcats came back to tie the game at 40 with 17 minutes left.
Arizona took the lead, 44-43, a minute later, but the Huskies were able to score quickly and never again trailed.
"We were fighting to win, and talking a little bit," Thomas said, "but we got the last laugh."
The storyline leading up to the game was how the Huskies would try to slow down Williams, the reigning Pac-10 freshman of the year who came in averaging 20.8 points and eight rebounds a game.
Williams started slow but finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, yet it seemed as though the Huskies had locked him down, especially in the first half.
"You think you did a good job on him, but at the end of the night he still has 20 points," Romar said.
The Huskies did shut down Williams when it mattered most. He was held scoreless in the final six minutes of the game. He had four fouls at the time, but was still in the game, though unable to make much of an impact.
"It took a team effort to defend Derrick Williams," Romar said.
Romar used his three big men to defend Williams: Bryan-Amaning, Gant and N'Diaye. At times, Williams was double-teamed. Other times, when Washington went to a zone defense, the entire team collapsed down when Williams got the ball.
That wasn't the only plan to slow down Williams. Washington wanted to get him in foul trouble - and succeeded.
"They set so many screens and Derrick has to run and hedge at a full sprint, and if he doesn't get out there then Isaiah is going to shoot it," Arizona sophomore forward Solomon Hill said.
"It's not about the score, it's about, 'Did we try to do things right,' and I thought we really tried to do things right," Romar said.
The Huskies ended up winning by a solid margin, but it was the way they won that was most impressive. Washington scrapped all game with a good Arizona basketball team and ended up on top.
It's games like this that Romar believes will get the Huskies ready for a long run in March. They were able to keep the game at their pace, scrap all game long, and hit the shots when they needed to most.
"We would rather be at the top then have to fight for it," UW senior forward Justin Holiday said. "If we can keep doing this and keep getting wins, and keep playing well, we'll be fine."
With the win, the Huskies improved to 6-1 in conference play, 14-4 overall. Arizona State comes to Seattle Saturday and Washington hopes to improve on its 11-game home winning streak.
The Huskies already know that going to Tucson later is going to be a war.
"Of course it's going to be tough," Holiday said. "Like I said before, any team in the Pac-10 can potentially beat us. The whole conference is real good. Especially being down there, it's going to be a tough one but I'm ready for that. We have to focus on Arizona State on Saturday. That's going to be tough, too."