SEATTLE — Almost by default, this was the Pac-10 Game of the Half-Season, but unlike the old days, it wasn't a full-blown test of manhood for either Arizona or Washington.
The Wildcats are vulnerable, missing a few key parts, a year or two away from going on the road and making a Top 25 team nervous. A make or break game? Not yet. But it was considerably more encouraging than Arizona's breakdown at BYU six weeks earlier.
"It was a game for first place, I knew the crowd would be like this," said UA forward Derrick Williams. "But we didn't believe we could win at the end."
Washington won 85-68 on a night neither team was at its best in a game that required almost 2 1/2 hours to get to the finish of a ragged, poor-shooting affair with 54 free throws.
And the Huskies, who are likely to win the Pac-10 title without a particularly worrisome rival, bear little resemblance to Lorenzo Romar's 26-win teams of 2006, 2009 and 2010. But who cares? This is 2011.
In the second decade of the 21st century, this is the cream of Pac-10 hoops (so far), and the Wildcats proved to be overstretched when targeted by both the Huskies and their fans in Hec Edmundson Pavilion, which was not a peaceful assembly.
You get the feeling that the other semi-contenders in the league, UCLA and possibly USC, might watch the video of Thursday's game and think that it's not too late to leap past both teams.
A bigger exam for Arizona will come Feb. 19 in the return game at McKale Center, a game chosen months ago for broadcast by ESPN. By then, at home, Arizona will know more about itself. It will be able to circle the date on the calendar the way the Huskies did Thursday.
The only problem with that is that the Huskies seem to have greater resources and thus an increased capacity for improvement between now and then.
"They knew what our abilities are, and they took 'em away," said UA point guard MoMo Jones.
UA coach Sean Miller was somewhat encouraged that his team didn't cough it up and fade away when it trailed by double digits through some of the first half. Williams had difficulty dealing with the length of 7-foot Husky center Aziz N'Diaye. Somehow, the Wildcats made a game of it.
As Williams adjusted to yet another defensive scheme against him, he missed five of his first six shots (two were air balls). His teammates weren't much better. Amazingly, after bricking 13 of its first 17 shots, Arizona trailed just 18-13.
A vintage Pac-10 power of previous years, some of Stanford and UCLA's teams of the last 20 years, might have led 38-13 by then. The Huskies needed 37 minutes to put this UA team-in-transition away.
Ultimately, Washington's size, its depth, pot-stirring guard Isaiah Thomas and its ability to identify two secondary scorers, Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, was more than Arizona could handle.
Oh, could Arizona use someone like Holiday, a swift 6-foot, 6-inch wing player with long arms and longer shooting range. But when you have continuity in your program, as Washington has had under Romar, you are able to deploy fourth-year players such as Holiday and get production in important games. He had 22 this time.
Remember, Holiday sat on the bench for two years at the UW, averaging 0.7 and 2.1 points per game. Arizona doesn't have the luxury to sit a potentially talented player for two years.
"They use their size well and have three big bodies down low," said Williams. "But it wasn't just that. Isaiah had a great game."
This is the first time since 1990 that Washington has been superior to Arizona at point guard. In 1990 and 1991, the Huskies trotted out three-time All-Pac-10 combo guard Eldridge Recasner against Arizona's Matt Muehlebach and Matt Othick, who were capable point guards still developing as big-game players. The Huskies won at Hec Ed with a 5-13 Pac-10 team that season, beating the then-No. 4 Wildcats 70-56.
That's how much difference a star point guard can make.
It took 21 years for the point guard edge to swing to the Huskies, and it showed. Thomas scored 22 points on 12 shots. Arizona's Jones scored 10 points on 10 shots. Thomas had 10 assists; Jones two.
Before he left the arena Thursday night, Jones said on the floor, gazing at the floor, alone in his thoughts. His first showdown against the Pac-10's best guard didn't go well. Jones had spent much of the night trying to fight through a maze of screens.
"It's just tough going through those ball screens," he said softly. "We set a lot of ball screens, but not like that. It just wears you down, especially when you're going against 7-footers and guys who weigh 270 pounds hitting you constantly."
Such is life on the Pac-10 road for a young team.