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February 23, 2006

Title contenders raise stakes for final homestand

Old-school Seattleites might remember an all-hours eatery in the Denny-Regrade whose slogan was painted across the outside wall: All roads lead to the Doghouse. For the Huskies and five seniors the same can be said as Stanford and California travel to the Dawghouse for the drama-laden home finales. The storylines are almost too numerous to count. One of the most accomplished classes in Husky history defending its turf-one last time-against the conference contenders. A chance to erase the frustration of two narrow defeats in the Bay Area, not to mention a collision of three Pac-10 Player of the Year candidates.

Thursday night's game features a clash of two third-place teams going in opposite directions. The seventeenth-ranked Huskies (20-5, 9-5) have won four in a row to pull within a game of the conference leaders, UCLA and Cal. Stanford's postseason hopes are as wobbly as the mascot. Since the girl who wore the Tree costume for the Stanford Band was dismissed for blowing a 0.15 on a breathalyzer test during their game at Cal, the Cardinal have fallen on hard times. Last Saturday's 76-72 loss to Arizona was Stanford's third heartbreaker in the last four games, dropping their record to 13-10, 9-5 in conference.

The Cardinal will have to forgive Washington for not being too empathetic. The Huskies saw their Jan. 29 victory at Palo Alto evaporate when guard Chris Hernandez hit three free throws with two-tenths of a second remaining to force overtime, perhaps the most demoralizing defeat of the season. Freshman Justin Dentmon received the most painful lesson of his young career when he was called for the fateful foul, which could politely be described as "ill-advised."

"I've already put it to rest," Dentmon said this week. "I call it The Nightmare in the Past."

The way the team, especially the seniors, rallied around him and rebuilt their futures after the even more surprising loss at Washington State is a defining characteristic of this team. The point guard mentioned that hearing the team's leaders take some responsibility for the loss made a difference in his personal rebound.

"After I heard that it really helped as far as being down on myself," Dentmon shared. "And then the coaches told me that stuff like that, you have to leave in the past. You have to have short-term memory loss and just leave it alone. Coach (Cameron) Dollar told me that everyone makes mistakes, it's just how you handle your mistakes that make you a man."

Dentmon has played some of his best games of the season since the setback as the Dawgs have climbed back from a 5-5 conference record. The seniors have helped pave the way with major contributions. Swingman Bobby Jones shut down the Bruins' Arron Afflalo and added 10 points and four steals as Washington emerged with its first three-game winning streak over UCLA since 1952. Jones contributed 12 points, nine rebounds, and five assists last Saturday at Oregon State as the Huskies secured back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since 1984 and 1985. With his first basket versus Cal, Jones will pass Donald Watts for 21st on the UW career scoring list.

Forward Mike Jensen, who recently returned to the starting lineup after 87 starts in his previous three seasons, hit three treys at OSU and has been a steadying influence as Washington regained its winning ways. Jamaal Williams, in his second year as a Husky after the transfer from New Mexico, had a vital performance (17 points, seven rebounds, three assists) in the 75-72 victory at Oregon. And Dawg Pack favorite Zane Potter, the senior walk-on from Boring, Ore., even got in on the act at OSU, hitting his third trey of the season.

Brandon Roy, who has scored 20 or more points in seven straight games, is having the most memorable month of his distinguished career. The Pac-10 Player of the Week for the second consecutive week, Roy has averaged nearly 23 points and seven rebounds over the last four games, while adding 5.5 assists. The multifaceted senior will have added incentive Thursday as the OT loss at Stanford was one of the most one-dimensional games of his special season-25 points, one rebound and no assists for the first time all year.

If Stanford loses another regular season game, their only hope of a NCAA Tournament bid would be to win the Pac-10 Tourney. The veteran team's motivation will be matched by the Huskies' memory of last year's 77-67 loss at Stanford, which knocked the Dawgs out of first place on the final Saturday of the season. The plot thickens when you factor in the Player of the Year race. Stanford center Matt Haryasz can help his chances with a strong showing at Edmundson Pavilion. Haryasz, who had 24 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks against the Huskies last month, is tied for third amongst the conference scorers (18.1) and is second in rebounding (8.8).

"Haryasz is tall, but at the same time he's real long and has a knack for the ball," said Jensen, who along with Jon Brockman will attempt to trim Stanford's tallest tree. "Anytime a team has such a focus on getting one person the ball, it's hard because they're looking for him every set. When you get that many touches and someone's constantly coming at you it's a rough matchup, but I think we'll do a team job against him."

The Dawg-Tree meeting will also feature three candidates for the Pac-10 All-Freshman team. Brockman is fourth in the conference in rebounding (7.1) and fourth on the team in scoring (9.2), while Dentmon, the Rivals.com National Freshman of the Week (Dec. 12), is seventh in the conference in assists (3.96) and sixth in steals (1.52). Mitch Johnson, the Stanford point guard from Seattle's O'Dea High School, is fifth in the Pac-10 in assist/turnover ratio (1.48). The son of former Sonic John Johnson handed out six assists in the last meeting, but also had seven turnovers, including a pass stolen by Roy in the final seconds that appeared to ice the game for the Huskies.

Sophomore forward Leon Powe, arguably Roy's biggest challenger for conference player of the year, will lead the Bears into Edmundson Pavilion on Sunday. Powe surpassed the 30-point mark in the victories over Stanford and Arizona, but had 23 points last Saturday as the Bears fell at home to Arizona State 65-64 in double overtime. Despite the upset, California (16-7, 10-4) remained tied for first place following UCLA's stumble at Southern Cal.

The Bears stiff-armed the furious UW rally last month, 71-69, for the first of six consecutive wins. Guard Ayinde Ubaka (15 ppg, 4 apg) and Powe have powered Cal into contention for the school's first Pac-10 title since 1960, legendary coach Pete Newell's final season at the helm. Keep your eye on matchup of Williams and Brockman with Powe and 6-foot-11 center DeVon Hardin, who is defensive disruptor. Williams was limited to four points and one rebound at Berkeley by the Bear posts, which should include 6-foot-10 Rod Benson, who returned last week from a meniscus tear in his right knee.

Freshman swingman Theo Robertson has moved into the starting lineup recently for Omar Wilkes. Both had solid games versus the Huskies with Wilkes scoring 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and Robertson contributing nine points and four assists off the bench. Rebounding will also be a key to the battle for a top conference tourney slot and a better NCAA seed. The Huskies, who are 18-1 when they outrebound their opponents, were edged 31-30 on the boards in Berkeley as Powe accounted for 13 rebounds.

Opinions varied slightly amongst the seniors on the emotional importance of the final games at Hec Ed, where these Huskies established a school record with 32 consecutive wins. But to a man, they were excited at the chance to make a major season statement.

"I'm pretty excited about these games," said Jensen, the fifth-year Husky. "We have a chance to improve our standing in the Pac-10 and try to fight for that championship. A couple of teams lost that we needed to lose, and at the same time (we) wrap up our last showing on the home court."

Roy said he would try to soak up the feeling of the finales, but winning would make for the best memories. "The fact that these are my last two games makes it even more important to win them. The Pac-10 championship is on the line, but more than that I want to go out a winner at Hec Ed."


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