PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—Team captain Jon Brockman had a broken nose and a seat on the bench because of fouls. Isaiah Thomas and Justin Dentmon weren’t fulfilling their roles as Washington’s top two scorers in the biggest game of the season.
As usual, everyone forgot about Quincy Pondexter.
Pondexter scored a season-high 23 points and the fourth-seeded Huskies took advantage of early foul trouble to Mississippi State’s menacing Jarvis Varnado to race past the 13th-seeded Bulldogs 71-58 in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
“It was very noticeable,” the springy, 6-foot-6 Pondexter said with a smile, of Varnado being out during a game-turning run in the first half. “I didn’t have to alter my shots.”
The rugged Brockman did what Varnado couldn’t—overcome fouls—to finish with 14 rebounds and 10 points while playing with what he believes is a broken nose.
In the end, the supposedly vulnerable Huskies (26-8) looked far better than they last time they were in this city, losing to Portland of the West Coast Conference to begin the season. That and a six-game winning streak for Mississippi State, the Southeastern Conference tournament champions, had many expecting an early out for Washington.
“We had a lot of doubters, a lot of people who said this was going to be an upset,” Thomas said.
Barry Stewart and Phil Turner had 11 points each for Mississippi State (23-13), which had reached the NCAAs for the sixth time in eight years only because of its surprising romp through the SEC tournament.
“They just came out and hit us in the mouth early. And we didn’t respond,” said Bulldogs point guard Dee Bost, who had five points on 1-for-10 shooting.
The Bulldogs missed 17 of their first 23 shots and made just 34 percent overall. Ravern Johnson, who was averaging 12.2 points per game coming in, missed nine of his first 11 shots.
Varnado, the national leader in blocked shots and MSU’s leading scorer, finished with five blocks, to go along with seven points, three rebounds—and four fouls—in 23 minutes. He was distraught afterward, his head down and a towel over it.
The Huskies, who won the Pac-10 regular-season title for their first outright league title since 1953, scored the first six points of the second half — four on a dunk and a layup by Pondexter. He was set up by smooth, no-look passes from freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas. That put Washington up 44-27, and the Huskies cruised from there into Saturday’s second round against Purdue.
The fifth-seeded Boilermakers (26-9), who beat Northern Iowa 61-56 in a bruising game earlier Thursday, will be Washington’s second straight conference-tournament champion opponent.
The first got punished by Pondexter.
“Coach said he was the wild card,” Johnson said. “We just couldn’t stop him.”
The once-forgotten Pondexter thrived with team leader Brockman on the bench, Dentmon scoreless over the first 28 minutes and leading scorer Thomas content to feed Pondexter rather than force shots. Thomas and Dentmon finished with just 13 points, their second-lowest combined total this season.
“I was just really proud of our guys,” Brockman said. “We got in early foul trouble and that didn’t factor in at all. It didn’t faze us.
“That’s the adversity you’ve got to be able to handle when you are playing in a tournament like this.”
Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury had praised Varnado the day before for improving his ability to stay out of foul trouble this season. Then he played only six minutes of the first half. He got his second foul midway through the period for reaching over Brockman’s back in an attempt for a rebound.
This season, the 6-foot-9 junior led the nation with 165 blocks to break the SEC record he had shared with Shaquille O’Neal. He led the country with 157 last year. But Thursday, he merely led Mississippi State starters in time on the bench.
“It was their plan to try to get me in foul trouble,” he said.
Brockman, playing with what he called a bent and probably broken nose he sustained last week during the Pac-10 tournament, followed Varnado to the sidelines five minutes later with his second foul, when Washington led 16-14. That’s when Pondexter took over.
Playing like Brockman without Varnado around to stop him, Pondexter scored on a dunk, a putback and two turnaround jumpers during a 15-6 run.
That put the Huskies ahead 31-20 late in the half as the large purple pack in the stands roared. The Bulldogs never got closer.
“I had a sweet seat on the bench to watch our team go to work,” Brockman said.
The Bulldogs’ furry mascot had a close-up view, too, spending much of the second half seated dejectedly along the baseline, motionless with his legs crisscrossed.