NEW YORK — After flying all the way across the country for the second time this season, Washington wants to make this trip to Madison Square Garden much more successful than the first one.
The way the Huskies figure it, if they win the NIT championship it will show they truly belonged in the NCAA tournament.
The only No. 1 seed left in the 75th edition of the NIT, Washington faces coach Tubby Smith and his rejuvenated Minnesota team Tuesday night in the second game of a semifinal doubleheader. Stanford plays Massachusetts, driven by Brooklyn-bred point guard Chaz Williams, in the Final Four opener.
Washington (24-10) spent a week in New York during December, taking in two Broadway musicals and taking it on the chin against Marquette and Duke.
Now the Pac-12 regular-season champs are back — with a renewed purpose and a chip on their shoulders.
"It's a lot more of a business trip. We're out here playing for a championship. We're out here on a mission, so it is less fun and more work," said sophomore guard Terrence Ross, a potential NBA prospect averaging 26.3 points in the NIT. "I think coming back is just, it's more of an opportunity to prove to everybody that we should have been in the NCAA tournament."
When the Huskies took Manhattan three months ago, they visited the 9-11 Memorial and scored theater seats for "The Lion King." They also saw "Memphis" and met the cast backstage, with players then writing papers on the shows as part of a two-credit course arranged through a joint project between the school's athletic administration and drama department.
They ate at the famous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem, and actor Jim Caviezel, a Washington alum whose father played hoops at UCLA for John Wooden, hosted the Huskies on the set of his CBS television show "Person of Interest."
But when it came time to hit the court, Washington came up empty in two key games at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies lost to then-No. 11 Marquette 79-77 and four days later to then-No. 7 Duke, 86-80.
A victory in either game might have impressed the NCAA tournament selection committee. Instead, the Huskies were left out when the 68-team field was announced March 11, making them the first team to win a regular-season title in a so-called power conference and still miss the NCAAs.
"When the reality set in, we were rock-bottom mentally. So it's difficult. But they've done a good job of bouncing back," coach Lorenzo Romar said Monday. "I think the experience from being here last time should help us this time. I thought we had a little pregame jitters when we were here the first time. I don't think we'll have that. ... I think we're here now really focused on this tournament."
Washington will play No. 6 seed Minnesota (22-14), which sputtered through an injury-plagued season filled with close losses in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
The Golden Gophers lost star forward Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending knee injury in their seventh game, and senior center Ralph Sampson III has missed the last five with a sprained right knee. Backup forward Oto Osenieks is still bothered by concussion symptoms, too.
Other than that, though, Smith said the Gophers are healthier than they had been and that's made all the difference. They've reeled off three straight road wins in the NIT, by an average margin of 11 points, against La Salle, Miami and Middle Tennessee — the latter before a raucous crowd of 10,521.
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