If Sunday’s contest was any indication, the University of Washington basketball team still has a ways to go to become the legitimate March Madness contender it aspires to be. That said, a tireless 81-77 come-from-behind victory over Eastern Washington (8-2) at Alaska Airlines Arena showed some heart and should pay dividends during an exhausting Pac-12 conference slate.
“That’s a character win, again,” head coach Lorenzo Romar said. “UTEP, Long Beach State, this one, these are wins that when we play in our conference we will be able to draw from and gain confidence from.”
Robert Upshaw scored 24 points, pulled down nine rebounds and blocked six shots to lead Washington (8-0) to its best start since going 11-0 to begin the 2005-06 season. Despite finishing 5-for-14 from the foul line, Upshaw stepped up in consecutive trips to the line with 3:11 and 2:57 to play, respectively, making 3-for-4 to close to 68-67.
Upshaw said he mentally checked himself after early struggles (0-for-7 from the line).
“I talk to myself and just try to keep poise,” Upshaw said. “(I tell myself), ‘Hold your follow-through. Make this basket, we need this one.'”
The free throws set up Washington for its first lead of the second half a minute later when Upshaw tapped home a Nigel Williams-Goss miss with 1:27 remaining. The tip-in gave the Huskies a 71-70 lead, and after a stop on the defensive end, Williams-Goss hit a 3-pointer.
Williams-Goss scored 19 points and Andrew Andrews 18 behind a 12-for-13 effort at the line to aid Upshaw in the comeback win.
The Huskies trailed the Big Sky Conference team most of the night. After they took a 16-15 lead with 13:05 to play, the Huskies didn’t hold the advantage until Upshaw’s tip at 1:27.
Each time Washington made a run, the Eagles had an answer. Ognjen Miljkovic made three big 3-pointers while Drew Brandon and Tyler Harvey made a series of key shots to keep Eastern Washington ahead. Harvey had 21 points and Brandon added 16 and nine rebounds.
“I think we were a little rattled,” Upshaw said. “They were making shots . . . I think we just had to settle down, get back to what we did in practice and that’s what we did.”
Playing in their first game ranked in the Associated Press poll since February 2011, the Huskies drew on recent experiences against Seattle University and Long Beach State, in which they trailed at halftime.
“I think it’s just a tribute to our poise. We were down double-digits at halftime (and) we stayed together,” Williams-Goss said. “You saw last year that we lost a lot of close games, a lot of games that could’ve went either way, that got away from us. This year we’re trying to make all (the games) count, not let any games slip.”
Washington’s defense, which held No. 13 San Diego State to 20 percent shooting and 11 total field goals Dec. 7, was tested by the Eagles. Eastern finished 25-for-68 from the field, shooting 37 percent while enduring 12 blocked shots. Take away the challenges in the paint, and Eastern was quite deadly from the field.
“We knew this was a really good basketball team,” Romar said. “I thought we did a really good job, we pulled it together, and really, really gathered ourselves. We whittled away at their lead through defense and some guys hit some big shots.”
The Huskies host Grambling Wednesday before traveling to Oklahoma Saturday.