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Originally published March 20, 2012 at 9:48 PM | Page modified March 21, 2012 at 12:24 PM

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Huskies, Ducks put on an NCAA-worthy show

On Tuesday night, the NIT didn't feel like a consolation prize. Washington and Oregon played as if this game meant something, meant a lot.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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About a half-dozen times in the final 12 minutes of this NIT quarterfinal game, the crowd inside Hec Ed erupted in the kind of high-decibel roar usually reserved for February.

Tony Wroten corkscrewed in the lane for a bucket that gave Washington a four-point lead, and the cheers rattled the fieldhouse windows. Terrence Ross drained a three that put the Huskies up six, and a purple curtain of noise fell on Oregon.

C.J. Wilcox caught a pass from Abdul Gaddy and rained a three-pointer that put Washington ahead 75-68 and the student section pogo-sticked up and down, leading another clap of thunder.

Never mind that this was a Tuesday night in March and these weren't the games Washington wanted to play this month. This game mattered.

It mattered to the near-sellout house that, in this season of what-could-have-beens, it got one last chance to celebrate the game.

The game was important to the Huskies' program. A chance to keep playing. A chance to take the show back to New York. A chance to win a championship and hang a banner inside their building

Hec Ed was humming as loud as it has all season, so loud you would have thought a trip to the NCAA tournament, and not a trip to New York, was on the line.

This was a rare treat, a rivalry game in late March. The rubber match between Washington and Oregon. A chance for the Huskies to make up for their 25-point loss a month ago in Eugene. A show-me Tuesday night.

On Tuesday night, the NIT didn't feel like a consolation prize. Washington and Oregon played as if this game meant something, meant a lot. And the crowd of 9,140 reacted to almost every possession.

"It doesn't erase the pain of not playing in the NCAA tournament," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said after his team's 90-86 win over Oregon. "But it still gives you something that you can look back on and add to the fact that we were the Pac-12 champions.

"Now we have a chance, although it's not the NCAA tournament, to go to the Garden and be in a Final Four. It's something you can look back on and say there are a lot of teams that weren't able to do that."

From Ross' first three 90 seconds into the game, until Wilcox's last two free throws in the final 4.3 seconds, the crowd stayed into the game.

The stakes weren't nearly as high, but this was as good a game as you can get in March. It was up-and-down. It was fierce in the paint. It was the kind of game that made it hard for you to catch your breath.

Oregon took a seven-point lead late in the first half, Washington erased it in two minutes. The Huskies had an eight-point lead with 5 ½ minutes to go. The Ducks kept coming back.

Most of the games in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament were played in the 50s and 60s. The pressure came from the defenses. The officiating was loose, allowing teams to play brutally physical defense.

If there is a criticism of the madness in March, it is that the game has gotten too rough and too slow.

This game was fast, basketball the way it should be played. In this game the pressure came from the offenses. Both teams came at each other relentlessly. As a testament to the quality of their play, Washington and Oregon combined for only 15 turnovers.

This wasn't a night of bad defense. This was a night of very good offense.

In this down season for the conference, these fierce rivals gave us a game to remember. It doesn't really matter what the initials were in front of the marquee, this game was March good. And, on any given night, these two teams could beat a lot of teams in that other tournament.

Before the game the question was raised: What was better, winning the NIT, or losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Dayton?

"Any time I would have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, I would prefer that," Romar said after the game. "In hindsight, we're still advancing, but I still would have loved to have been in the NCAA tournament. But we made our bed."

On Tuesday night, they made this tournament feel important. They turned the NIT into something more than merely a consolation prize.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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