When the Washington Huskies began their NIT run a week ago, I was admittedly about as ambivalent as the rest of the fan base. As long as the Huskies played on and tickets remained (very) available, however, I planned to be at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The crowd of a few thousand that turned out last Tuesday was angry, in nearly equal measure with the referees, Texas Arlington and the Washington team itself.
Seven days later, the scene could not possibly have been more different as the Huskies met the Oregon Ducks with a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT’s version of the final four on the line. Matching up the two bitter rivals added an extra element to the NIT, especially in the wake of a 25-point loss in Eugene the last time the teams squared off. UW announced the official attendance at 9,140, but I didn’t see any open seats–certainly not in the bleachers, where so many people crowded into so little space that the crowd became a sweaty, frenzied mass of humanity.
From the opening tip, the crowd was on edge, booing a series of calls that put Aziz N’Diaye and Terrence Ross in early foul trouble as well as the Oregon cheer squad’s incongruous appearances at center court during timeouts. We chanted “Go! Huskies!” more often than I can ever remember at a basketball game and screamed our lungs out for Ross’ three-pointers and Tony Wroten‘s trips to the free throw line.
For one night, at least, the fact that this was the three-letter tournament and not its more prestigious four-letter counterpart did not matter. To steal Jerry Izenberg‘s famous line about the Thrilla in Manila, the Huskies and the Ducks weren’t playing for the NIT championship, they were playing for the championship of each other.
These two teams deserved another meeting because the first two matchups between them, both won by the home team in lopsided fashion, failed to do justice to how evenly matched they were. This one featured more twists and turns, following a similar script to many Washington victories this season: halftime deficit, taking control in the second half, then hanging on down the stretch, often by the narrowest of margins.
Unlike its predecessors, this Husky team was rarely able to dominate its opposition. Playing a series of close games is a tough way to make a living, and it cost Washington dearly during the Pac-12 Tournament against Oregon State. If I’ve come to realize–and appreciate–one thing about the NIT, it’s that in its modern incarnation this tournament is designed to reward exactly these kinds of successful but flawed teams. The NIT is a little like the Island of Misfit Toys. Every team has some shortcoming that kept it out of the NCAA tournament. Still, put two evenly matched teams like that together, especially if their flaws happen to match up correctly, and it can produce wildly entertaining games like Tuesday night’s.
No matter what happens next week at Madison Square Garden, this Husky team will have a special place in my heart. Certainly, it’s been frustrating at times, but I think it’s important to put the ups and downs in context. A decade ago, we’d have killed to be in the discussion for the NCAA tournament. Exactly 10 years ago, Washington met Oregon in the postseason. That game was the opener of the newly reinstated Pac-10 Tournament, with the Ducks as the No. 1 seed and the Huskies No. 8–feeling happy just to have made it to Los Angeles back when the conference’s last two teams didn’t even earn an invitation to the tournament.
This UW season has been challenging, but it’s that very process that has made the real triumphs–the second solo conference regular-season championship in the past 59 years, plus the NIT run–so rewarding to anyone who has stuck the process out. I see that in Lorenzo Romar‘s reaction. During Romar’s decade in Seattle, I don’t remember him ever getting as fired up as over the course of this tournament. Against Texas Arlington, Romar seemed to be trying to convince his players to move past their disappointment and get serious about the NIT. By Tuesday night, that was no longer necessary, but Romar was still an animated presence on the sidelines. When it was over, he took the microphone for the second consecutive game to thank the fans for their support and sing with an admittedly hoarse voice a few bars of New York, New York.
Nobody can tell Romar the NIT is meaningless. And, now, you can’t tell me that either.