LOS ANGELES — Isaiah Thomas carried Washington for all 45 minutes of Saturday afternoon's fiercely contested Pac-10 title game, so it was only fitting his teammates returned the favor once time expired.
Moments after Thomas sank a step-back 18-footer at the buzzer to give the Huskies a 77-75 overtime victory over top-seeded Arizona, Aziz N'Diaye and Matthew Bryan-Amaning hoisted the 5-foot-9 point guard on their shoulders as he raised his arms in triumph.
Thomas earned that gesture with a 28-point, seven-assist masterpiece culminating in the first true buzzer beater of his college career.
With just a few ticks remaining on the clock and the score tied at 75, Thomas crossed over Arizona's MoMo Jones at the top of the key, gave him a forearm nudge to create space and then attempted a step-back jumper from just inside the arc. That he still had the stamina to sink it was all the more amazing since he played 123 of 125 possible minutes in Washington's three Pac-10 tournament victories.
"I wanted to pull up because the refs aren't really going to call a foul in that situation," Thomas said. "I wanted to make a quick move, get some separation and lift, and thankfully it went in."
Even though Washington won the Pac-10 tournament last year and began the season as the conference favorite, expectations were not high for the Huskies when they arrived in Los Angeles this week. They finished a distant third in the Pac-10 race, their title hopes done in by a mixture of injuries and distractions from guard Venoy Overton's legal issues stemming from an encounter with two 16-year-old girls.
With Overton suspended for the Pac-10 tournament and Abdul Gaddy done for the season as a result of a January knee injury, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said he felt he couldn't substitute for Thomas in the title game. The junior guard responded by lifting the Huskies to a victory that suggests they'll be a team no high NCAA tournament seed wants to draw on Sunday, just like they were a year ago when they made the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed.
"They're just a tough-minded, deep team," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "They've been in the winner's circle before, and I would not want to play them in the first round of the tournament at all."
It took a late rally from Washington at the end of regulation just to merely force overtime and prevent Arizona from adding the conference tournament championship to the regular season crown it captured last week.
The Huskies trailed 66-62 after a Derrick Williams 3-point play with 26 seconds left when Thomas found Terrence Ross for a 3-pointer to trim the deficit to one. Two free throws from Jones extended it to 68-65 with 14 seconds to go, but Thomas penetrated and found C.J. Wilcox spotted up in the left corner for a game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime.
Miller defended the decision not to foul with a three-point lead, noting that he thought it was too early to try that strategy with 14 seconds to go. Wilcox got so open in the corner because Kevin Parrom made the mistake of leaving him free to help on Thomas' drive even though the Wildcats led by three.
"If you leave the 3-point line when you're winning by three and it's under 10 (seconds), that's the worst way of losing," Miller said. "We ran in from the corner for no reason and gave them a wide-open three to tie."
Parrom redeemed himself with the game-tying 3-pointer in overtime with 19 seconds left, but that only set the stage for Thomas.
Even though Romar wanted a timeout to set up a play, he trusted Thomas enough not to call one when the point guard waved him off. Thomas then unleashed a move he said he practiced with Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry when the two worked out together in Seattle during the summer.
"That was a really tough shot," Washington freshman Terrence Ross said. "It just proves to everyone that he's a warrior that goes and fights. He has so much heart. He plays like every game is the last one he's going to play."
It's a good thing this is the last game Thomas is going to play for a while because he admitted he was exhausted afterward. Once his teammates put him down from their shoulders during the postgame celebration, he lay flat on his back on the midcourt circle for a minute or two as though he were making a snow angel.
"I'm really tired," Thomas said. "I'm ready to get on the plane and go to sleep."
No doubt he'll have sweet dreams.