BY Bob Sherwin 01:19AM 03/12/2011

Dawgs vs. Cats, pre-game: I.T. has look

Vision, anticipation leads to another double-double and UW in the final

Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, once a prolific scorer, is now an assist machine for the Huskies / Jeff Gross, Getty Images

LOS ANGELES – Talk about court vision. Isaiah Thomas takes it another step beyond. He doesn’t merely see what’s there and reacts, he anticipates what’s going to happen.

Thomas, the Washington Huskies junior point guard, displayed his superior passing skills Friday in the Huskies’ 69-51 semifinal victory over Oregon in the Pac-10 Tournament. He had a tournament-record-tying 12 assists to go with 10 points.

The Huskies (22-10) now play No.1 seed Arizona Saturday at 3 p.m. for the tournament championship. The teams split during the regular season.

“He finds me a lot,” said freshman guard Terrence Ross, who had 13 points in his second career start. “He’s a great point guard, great court vision. He finds me before I ever see something happening. He sees it before me.”

Sort of a psychic play-maker.

“He can give you whatever you need as a guard,” UW Coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We’ve been able to see his play-making ability at a high level. Down the stretch, he’s just really taken this leadership thing on like nobody’s business. He’s vocal. He’s playing hard. He’s just playing good basketball.”

Thomas has always been a scorer, 50 points once for Curtis High. He was a big-time scorer in high school, both at Curtis and South Kent (Conn.). He averaged 15.5 points his first season with the Huskies in 2008-09. He dreams about scoring. He has always fancied scoring 40 points for this team. If he doesn’t declare early for the draft and returns for his senior season, he will shatter the school’s career scoring record.

That takes confidence. It takes a swagger and an ego. It’s his pride. It was, anyhow. He hasn’t been that guy since starting point guard Abdul Gaddy went down with a season-ending knee injury Jan. 4. More was expected, which meant less scoring. He had an added role of running the team.

When Romar opened his remarks after Friday’s game by saying “second game in a row we had a team contribution” that’s the compliment to Thomas. He’s the reason it’s a team. He finds the hot hand. He takes his shot when others are struggling. He drives when the lane is clogged and takes a foul and a beating.

“My role gets bigger every year,” Thomas said. “I have to do whatever it takes to win, if that’s scoring or assists, or getting in guys heads and yelling at them. I got to be the leader out there.”

He has buried his ego like a long swish. He’s not so much the scorer now as a helper. That’s not easy to accept. He’s not even the guy Romar wants to take the big shot at the end of a game. Wilcox is that guy. A freshman.

But Thomas is fine with it. He’s an assist machine now. He has 393 assists, and moved ahead of Venoy Overton Friday night to fourth place on the school’s career list. He had back-to-back double-digit assists games here for the second time this season, the third Husky ever to do that. He needs just one assist to tie the tournament record of 24.

“To me, it feels the same way,” said Thomas, comparing scoring and dishing. “When you’re hitting your shots it feels like every shot’s going to go in. When you’re hitting assists, it feels like every pass is open.”

Thomas said he has a sense of what to do as the game starts. He watches the form of his shooters. He measures their energy level. He gives them the ball in open spaces. He also knows his team thrives on momentum plays to start runs, like setting up flying alley-oops – as Ross received from him in the first half – and full-bore, down-the-lane dunks to Matthew Bryan-Amaning.

He also knows when to take it himself. When the Ducks were on a charge inside 10 minutes, it was Thomas Time. A full-court press was rattling the Huskies. The Ducks forced a couple turnovers and moved within four points, 44-40. Thomas then hit an extra long three-pointer – his only trey of the game – to end an 8-0 Oregon run and give the Huskies their first basket in 5 ½ minutes.

Next time down, he found Ross and he connected on a three. But the play of the game came with 3:58 left and the Huskies leading by 10 points, 57-47. It was still a game. Thomas drove down the left side of the lane, lost the handle briefly, re-gripped, drew in a couple defenders then whipped the ball into the left corner to Wilcox. He hit the three-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw for a 61-47 lead. Game over.

“I’ve always maintained that Isaiah is a very unappreciated winner,” Romar said. “Every team he has played on, that’s what he has been asked to do. That’s his role. I think now he shows his versatility.”

After the Huskies beat Arizona 85-68 on Jan. 20 – when Thomas had 22 points and 11 assists – Wildcat coach Sean Miller said he’s one of the top five guards in the country. Thomas had another double-double – 12 points, 10 assists – on Feb. 19 when the Wildcats edged the Huskies, 87-86, in Tucson. Miller lavished praise on him again. He respects Thomas and no doubt will have some special plans for the 5-foot-9 firebrand Saturday.

“They got us last time and we want some revenge,” Thomas said. “They’re a great team, and we’ll be ready for them.”

Already, he’s envisioning.

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