Huskies peaking at right time

Worried? You bet the University of Washington basketball players and coaches were worried.

You take a team that started the season ranked 13th in the nation in the coaches' poll. Then you lose five of your first eight in a lackluster Pac-10 and fail to deliver a single victory worth popping your jersey about for the first three months of the college basketball season.

You'd worry, too. A bunch.

"It feels like we've been playing one-and-done games for more than two weeks, like we'd be going home if we lost," said Washington guard Elston Turner. "We got used to the pressure of one-and-done basketball a long time ago."

"I'm not sure if we would have gotten into the tournament if we didn't get on that nice little streak at the end of the season," Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas said.

Thomas, the Huskies' relentless, 5-foot-8 point guard, winked. "But I'm glad that we didn't have to find out," he said.

A likely one-and-done team when the Pac-10 tournament started two weeks ago, the Huskies are a two-and-going-awfully-strong team today.

A stunning slash and score by Quincy Pondexter with 1.7 seconds to play to beat Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A thunderous 18-point victory over third-seeded New Mexico followed.

Next thing you know, coach Lorenzo Romar's team, an 11 seed, faces an East Regional semifinal game Thursday night against West Virginia, the region's two seed. And the Mountaineers must play without point guard Darryl Bryant, who broke his foot Tuesday. A lost season has suddenly been re-discovered for the 26-9 Huskies.

"We're in a nice groove," Turner said. "We're having fun. We just want to keep playing."

That's understandable because that nice groove eluded the Huskies for about three months. Although picked in the preseason top 20 by nearly every poll and magazine, they lost frontcourt star Jon Brockman, a double-double guy, as well as guard Justin Dentmon.

That was an aggregate loss of 29 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists per game - and it showed. Often. And painfully. An early December loss at Texas Tech. An eight-point stumble against Georgetown. Those things can happen.

But not to an aspiring NCAA tournament team: an ugly 11-point homecourt burp against lowly Oregon. Lost weekends in Arizona (losing to Arizona State and Arizona) and Los Angeles (losing to UCLA and USC).

After a 26-point beatdown at USC Jan. 23, Washington was12-7 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-10. That's not the profile of a Sweet 16 team, nor even an NCAA tournament team. That's the summary of a team in serious trouble.

"If you asked the people that were around our program during that time, they would tell you that those questions were asked," Romar said.

"I never had any doubts. It was, 'When is it going to happen? When is this going to come together?' Because I thought we had the pieces to be able to be successful and it just hadn't worked out yet. So the question for me was, 'How long is this going to take because we're running out of time?' "

Romar's players say it took until Feb. 13, when they won at Stanford, 78-61, before this group realized that it was capable of doing something in March.

Although the Huskies won four in a row after losing at UCLA and USC, they stumbled at California for their fifth consecutive Pac-10 road defeat. Then came the win at Stanford.

"We had to prove we could win a tough game on the road," said Washington forward Justin Holiday. "That's what good teams do, win on the road. We finally learned to trust each other."

Since Feb. 20, the Huskies have been winning everywhere -- home, road, neutral site, and now bring a nine-game winning streak into the West Virginia game.

Pondexter has bumped up his scoring average to 19.7 points while delivering 11 double-doubles. Thomas is averaging 17.1 and, despite his size, has had 17 games with five or more rebounds. Matthew Bryan-Amaning, a junior forward from England, has swatted away 49 shots. Turner is stroking the ball at better than 38 percent from the three-point line.

"We don't really care what seed we are as long as we're in the playing field," Pondexter said. "Anyone can be upset. We've seen that in the tournament so far.

"Throughout this run, I think we have gained a lot of confidence because we're starting to see us playing right, and when that happens, it just gets you anxious to play that next game and continue to go for it."