Washington takes care of bid-ness

For 40 minutes Saturday, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar watched his team scratch, fight and claw for its NCAA tournament life.

He saw the Huskies surge ahead, then fall behind and eventually become tied in a heated battle with California.

But after the final buzzer sounded at Staples Center, he could finally exhale.

Because if there was any uncertainty as to whether the Huskies would be dancing this March, the questions went right out the window after Saturday’s 79-75 victory in the Pac-10 tournament championship.

“I thought we had done enough,” Romar said about Washington’s tourney chances before locking up the automatic bid. “I’ve watched Selection Sunday many years to see teams with great résumés get denied on that day.

“Thank God the guys made it happen and left no doubt.”

Whether Romar wants to believe it or not, though, there was some doubt about this Washington team.

The Huskies, after all, entered the season sporting a No. 14 preseason ranking and were projected by many as a Sweet 16 and possible Elite Eight candidate.

Those predictions, unfortunately, were quickly dismissed when the Huskies stumbled at Texas Tech and fell to Big East power Georgetown in the John Wooden Classic in early December.

Washington would bounce back to beat Texas A&M in a critical non-conference game a couple of weeks later, but the nation’s perception of the Huskies had already begun to take form.

And after three straight Pac-10 losses in the middle of January and no road wins until Feb. 13, it wasn’t a favorable one.

“You can’t allow public opinion to affect how you work,” Romar said. “With criticism, it motivates guys to play even better. Fingers can begin to get pointed, but our guys didn’t do that. We have great character, and with great character, you can overcome adversity.”

It helps when you have Quincy Pondexter in your starting lineup, too.

The senior forward might not have won Pac-10 Player of the Year, but he showed on Saturday against the conference’s regular-season champion that he and his teammates deserve to be back in the NCAA tournament next week.

“We wanted to prove that we’re one of the best teams in the country,” said Pondexter, who finished with a team-high 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting against the Golden Bears.

“We told each other, ‘If we handle business, we don’t need a committee to determine if we’re good enough. We’ll be automatically in.’”

For one thing, the Huskies handled Cal’s volatile backcourt of Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher, holding the two stars to 3-for-11 shooting performances and a combined 23 points.

“In some ways, it’s surprising that we shot the ball as poorly as we did,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said.

Now, after Washington’s third win over a top 50 RPI team, the only thing that remains unsettled is what seed the selection committee will give Romar’s group.

“I’m not sure how there was any question about Washington,” Montgomery said about the Huskies’ NCAA tournament chances.

“We’ve said all along that three teams (from the Pac-10) should be in the tournament.”

They always say dream big, and that’s certainly what Montgomery is doing in proposing the conference deserves three of its teams in the field of 65.

In fact, at times this season, there were questions — even if they weren’t warranted — as to whether the Pac-10 would get more than one bid on Selection Sunday.

And had Cal managed to leave L.A. with a conference tourney crown, that prediction may have become a reality.

“I don’t think it was very fair at all,” Romar said about the notion that the Pac-10 could potentially receive only one NCAA tournament bid. “Once a statement is made publicly, sometimes it gains a lot of momentum and begins to snowball.”

“I think that’s talk,” Montgomery said.

The conference, along with the Huskies, doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.

With Washington assured a spot and Cal also a lock to get into the dance, the Pac-10 should have at least two teams in this year’s NCAA tournament.

“We’re going to be able to sleep tonight,” Pondexter said. “We’ve been going to sleep watching SportsCenter everyday and hearing about whether you’re on the bubble or off the bubble.

“All the teams we were playing were battling for the same thing.”

None of them, however, was able to pull off seven straight wins to finish its conference season.

Washington did, and that’s why the Huskies will rightfully be back in the NCAA tournament.

“The stakes haven’t been as high as they’re going to be now,” Romar said.

For a team that has been on one long roller-coaster ride since November, the stakes won’t be that much higher than they already were on Saturday.