SEATTLE (AP) — Defending Pac-10 champion Washington got routed in games at Arizona and Arizona State last month, the Huskies' first dual losses in the desert in seven years.
In key return games this weekend, Washington (14-7, 4-5 Pac-10) has two huge differences going for it as it tries to preserve its conference title and postseason hopes.
The Huskies will be enjoying home court, on which they are 32-2 the last two seasons.
They will also have defensive stopper Justin Holiday this time. Holiday missed that Arizona trip because of academic technicalities, but he will start Thursday night's game against conference co-leader Arizona (11-9, 6-3).
"I'm ready for it. We need these wins, of course. And not being able to play last time, hopefully I can put my mark on this game," Holiday said.
The Huskies are counting on it.
The 6-foot-6 junior has the long arms and the tenacity to prevent a repeat of Washington's 87-70 loss at Arizona on Jan. 10. The Wildcats' Jamelle Horne stunned the Huskies with career highs of 22 points, including five 3-pointers. Washington's characteristic, in-your-chest defense was nonexistent as Arizona shot 47 percent on 3s and 50 percent overall from the field.
At Arizona State two days before that, the Sun Devils' Rihards Kuksiks also fired away at will. He was 5 for 8 on 3s and had a career-high tying 27 points in a 68-51 win over Washington.
It was so bad for Holiday watching the games back in Seattle, he almost turned off the TV.
"Seeing Kuksiks and Jamelle go off like that, I felt like I could've helped," he said.
Holiday returned from the academic issue the following weekend. Coach Lorenzo Romar immediately inserted him into the starting lineup for the first time in his career, because Romar said Holiday has an endless supply of the two things his team lacked most: energy and defense.
Washington has won four of six since then, the only losses a last-second one at UCLA and a corresponding dud at Southern California.
Quincy Pondexter is Washington's leading scorer at 20.3 points per game. But the team's only senior says Holiday is the most important player.
"Oh, he provides so much energy for this team on the defensive end," Pondexter said. "He gets us going. He gives the ability to contest long-range shooters that we were lacking in Arizona.
"It all starts with defense. And he's really the key for us."
With Holiday starting and swarming opponents, the Huskies have been vibrant and attacking, a contrast from the team that slogged through a post-Christmas lull that left them in a season-jeopardizing hole.
"With the exception of the USC game, we've played with quite a bit of energy with him in there," Romar said of Holiday, emphasizing how his value goes far beyond his five points and three rebounds per game.
Jumping out to stop the opponent's long-range shooters are Holiday's specialty. He did it in his first game back following his Arizona hiatus, throttling Stanford's leading scorer leading scorer Landry Fields to 5 of 12 shooting. Washington won by 33, its largest win over the Cardinal.
Last weekend, Romar put Holiday on Washington State's Klay Thompson, who came in sixth in the nation in scoring at 22.3 points per game. Thompson left humbled by 2 for 15 shooting, tying his season low of seven points while Holiday's Huskies romped 92-64.
Now comes this chance to get back at Arizona and into the Pac-10 title race.
The Wildcats are 16-15 against the Huskies in Seattle. UCLA is the only other team to enter raucous Hec Edmundson Pavilion more than three times and emerge with a winning record.
"They beat us by 17, so it's definitely a payback game," said Huskies guard Venoy Overton, another defensive pest. "They're coming into our home, so we've got to defend that too.
"It's a big game."