Before their final home game of the season, against Stanford last Saturday, the Washington Huskies decided they would approach the top-ranked, 26-0 Cardinal as "just another Pac-10 team," as guard Brandon Roy put it. Somehow Huskies fans never got the message. Twenty-four hours after a few dozen of them had established the first-ever tent city outside Hec Edmundson Pavilion, 10,086 people (the biggest crowd for a Huskies game in 35 years) jammed the place, all but a handful clad in Washington purple and ready to scream the visitors into submission. One fan wore an enormous fake Afro, a backhanded tribute to Stanford's All-America forward, Josh Childress, who had vowed to keep growing his towering 'do as long as his team kept winning. Several other fans brandished black umbrellas because, well, this was Seattle.
Boy, did it rain on Stanford's parade. Employing an aggressive man-to-man defense and showing a poise that belied its youth, Washington outscrapped, outrebounded and outshot one of the grittiest teams in the nation and won with relative ease, 75-62. The victory gave the surging Huskies a 12-6 record in the Pac-10, good for second place in the league, and made a case for their inclusion in the NCAA tournament no matter what happens in this week's conference tournament. The purple throng that danced on the court after the game was so vast and thick that the claustrophobic Roy, who had scored 12 points and hauled down a team-high seven rebounds, panicked until his teammates elbowed him a path to daylight. Safely back in the locker room, the 6'6" sophomore reflected on his team's feat. "Beating Arizona was fun," said Roy, referring to Washington's season sweep of another Pac-10 rival (and the nation's No. 21 team), "but this was amazing. This was the biggest game of my life."
The Huskies' second-year coach, Lorenzo Romar, had prior experience in knocking off No. 1 teams. Four years ago his Saint Louis Billikens beat top-ranked Cincinnati, and 25 years ago, when he was a guard at Washington, he scored 10 points in the Huskies' only other upset of a No. 1, a 69-68 victory over UCLA. Romar acknowledged that the win over Stanford was one of the most important in the Huskies' history. "Beating a Number 1 team when there's nothing at stake is something you never forget," he says, "but there was a lot more on the line in this game."
At stake for Stanford was the distinction of becoming the first team to finish the Pac-10 season 18-0. Washington, for its part, was trying to prove that it deserved a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, a goal that would have seemed laughable in mid-January. Back then the Huskies were dead last in the Pac-10 with an 0-5 conference record. But after overcoming a 16-point second-half deficit to beat Oregon State 103-99 in overtime on Jan. 17, Washington, which starts four sophomores and a junior, has been one of the hottest teams in the country, winning 12 of its final 13 Pac-10 games.
"Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you make adjustments," Romar says. "After the Oregon State game, our guys started playing with more of a purpose, and they started playing together, which is something they weren't doing 40 minutes a game."
Even when Washington was struggling, team chemistry was never an issue. Ten Huskies hail from the greater Seattle area. Four played together at Garfield High, including Roy; the starting point guard, 6'2" junior Will Conroy; and the aptly named 6'5" junior guard Tre Simmons, who nailed four three-pointers against Stanford. "We all pretty much knew each other from high school, because Seattle isn't very big," Roy says. "We all love being with each other now. We even do sleepovers at each other's places just so we can be together."
At week's end Roy led Washington in scoring, with 13-4 points per game, but the Huskies' undisputed sparkplug and fan favorite is sophomore guard Nate Robinson, another Seattleite, who scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds against the Cardinal. Robinson's listed height of 5'9" appears to be an exaggeration. The oldest son of former Huskies running back Jacque Robinson (the MVP of the 1982 Rose Bowl and the '85 Orange Bowl), Nate started at cornerback for Washington in 2002, but before last season he dropped football to focus on basketball. He spends most weekend evenings at Rainier Community Center, near where he grew up, shooting until the place closes at 2 a.m. His jump shot has improved accordingly, and it was he who helped resuscitate the Huskies' season with the three-pointer that sent the Oregon State game into overtime. But it's Robinson's electrifying hops that have fans buzzing, notably an alley-oop dunk against Arizona on Jan. 29. Several people present at that game reported seeing Robinson's head at the level of the rim. "He's one of the few guys I've been around, NBA or otherwise, who at 5'9" can change a game on both ends of the floor," says Romar.
Robinson also keeps his teammates loose, instigating games of tag and making competitions out of the most mundane activities. "He'll race to be the first one out the door or the first one to the bathroom to brush his teeth," says Roy, Robinson's frequent road roommate. "He is the most competitive person I've ever known."
Robinson has been in a lot of high-level competitions—in 2002 he led Rainier Beach High to the Class AAA state basketball championship—but he doesn't think he ever anticipated a game as much as he did the one against Stanford. "This was our chance to shock the world," he said afterward.
Two days before, Washington State, which would finish tied for seventh in the Pac-10, nearly upstaged its in-state rival by taking the Cardinal to the wire in Pullman. Stanford needed a seven-point comeback in the last 17.2 seconds, capped by a desperation three-pointer by guard Matt Lottich with time expiring, to escape with a 63-61 win. Two days later the Cardinal, looking like just another Pac-10 team, dug itself into another early hole, shooting 39.1% and hitting just 5 of 24 from beyond the arc (its second-worst three-point shooting game of the season). Seemingly rattled by the Huskies' quickness and suffocating defense—not to mention the crowd's ear-splitting roar—Stanford turned the ball over 13 times before intermission.