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February 28, 2009
Washington knows how close it is to a Pac-10 title. The Huskies also know that to earn their first outright conference crown since 1953, on Saturday they may need to overcome an Arizona team in search of another marquee victory to bolster its NCAA tournament hopes.
Washington (21-7, 12-4), ranked 21st, opened a 1 1/2-game lead atop the Pac-10 following its 73-70 overtime victory over No. 14 Arizona State - one of its three closest pursuers. The Huskies can clinch the title outright with wins over Arizona and arch-rival Washington State in their final two conference games.
"It's so close we can taste it. But you know what, the next two games aren't going to be easy at all," junior forward Quincy Pondexter said. "Washington State is a tremendous team. They're well coached and they play really hard. Arizona is one of the hottest teams in America. We can't slouch right now. We just have to come ready and prepared and get ready for Saturday."
Running a program that has normally played second fiddle in the Pac-10 to perennial powerhouses UCLA - the current reigning three-time conference champion - and Arizona - trying to extend the nation's longest NCAA tournament streak to 25 years - coach Lorenzo Romar knows the short and long-term benefits of being conference champions.
"It's special for me to see our players experience that," said Romar, who finished second to Stanford in 2004, Arizona in 2005 and UCLA in 2006. "Not everyone in their life experiences a conference championship. It brings credibility to the program. If you win the Pac-10 championship, you should get a decent seed to the NCAA tournament.
"It's so close but so far away."
Justin Dentmon's resolve is one reason the Huskies are on the cusp of a Pac-10 title. The senior guard scored six of his 16 points Thursday in overtime, regrouping after a disastrous turnover in the final minute that let Arizona State tie the game and failing to get off a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation.
"Anyone would have put their head down and been out of it for the rest of the game after that turnover,'' said teammate Jon Brockman, who had 21 points. "(Justin) came back and won the game for us.''
While the Huskies are looking for a high seed in the NCAA tournament, a win and sweep of the season series would go a long way for the Wildcats (18-10, 8-7) toward secure a spot in the field of 65. However, Arizona took a step backwards Thursday with a 69-53 loss at Washington State - its second straight defeat after a seven-game win streak.
The Wildcats squandered an 11-point, first-half lead as the Cougars shot 68 percent in the final 20 minutes in outscoring Arizona 43-24.
"The big thing is this; when you play on the road, you have a couple opportunities to maybe stretch a lead out and change the whole complexion of the game," Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell said. "And I thought in the first half we played real well and we had that lead.
"And then we were a little careless with the ball. When you're playing in a league like the Pac-10 on the road, and you get those opportunities, you better seize them."
The Wildcats will need Chase Budinger, who averages 17.5 points, to bounce back after being held to nine by Washington State. The forward is averaging 19.6 points in five lifetime games against Washington, and scored 25 in Arizona's 106-97 victory at home on Jan. 29.
Wildcats junior guard Nic Wise made all 14 of his free throws and scored a career-high 29 points in that contest.