COLUMBUS, Ohio — The wheels weren’t exactly coming off. But as Washington’s 12-point halftime lead shrunk to 54-53, a few lug nuts seemed to be visible on the Nationwide Arena floor. After a grim first half, Utah State was making its run in the NCAA Tournament opener.
That’s when the lessons of December paid off.
“Poise,” said Huskies assistant coach Will Conroy. “That’s why we played Minnesota. That’s why we played Gonzaga. That’s why we played Virginia Tech.”
The Huskies lost the matchups with three teams that eventually made the 68-team field. They learned.
The upgraded non-conference schedule was stripped of programs like Candycane Polytechnic and replaced with opponents who would split your lip, elbow your temple and knee your groin.
Sort of like Utah State, the Mountain West Conference champs who had won 17 of their previous 18 games and couldn’t wait to make the Pac-12 champs taste a little of their own blood.
“They played us a lot more physical than we thought,” Jaylen Nowell said. “They really punched us in the mouth with their physicality. We were stunned by that.”
The ninth-seeded Huskies recovered quickly. They punched back to control at intermission 40-28, yet took another hit when point guard David Crisp, the one starter with no true backup, fouled out with 8:16 left.
Then they deployed their hard-earned poise for a 78-61 triumph (box) that became a marker in Washington hoops history, ending eight years without a tournament triumph. The 9-22 season 2017 under coach Lorenzo Romar is hardly a speck in the rear view mirror.
For coach Mike Hopkins, a career assistant until two years years go when he risked leaving a comfortable gig in Syracuse to take over a cratering program in Seattle, the validation was plain.
“I’ve dreamt my whole life of being in this position,” he said. “When you dream and it and you get an opportunity, it’s special. Can’t lie to you.”
The day after the two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year was rewarded with a raise (to $2.5 million annually) and an extension, he earned a chunk of it shortly after the Aggies began their move behind all-conference shooter Sam Merrill, held scoreless in the first half.
After he struck a three to close to 54-53, Nahziah Carter came off the bench to drill back-to-back threes that seemed like daggers. But a moment later, Crisp, on a breakaway drive, used a forearm bar way too hard to repel a defender.
“I barely pushed him and he fell away,” Crisp said, but the flop worked to excuse him from the game with a fifth personal foul. Less than a minute later, Matisse Thybulle picked up his fourth. All reason and logic demanded that Hopkins pull Thybulle, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, at least for a couple of minutes.
“He makes the game different for anybody,” Hopkins said. “He disrupts offensive rhythm. You gotta think about him everywhere. When he’s on the court, there’s a different air of confidence with our defense.”
Point taken. Or rather, points taken away.
The Aggies scored seven points in the final seven minutes of the game after Thybulle assumed the position on the four-foul tightrope. As per usual with Huskies’ success under Hopkins, the 2-3 zone defense was a knot the Aggies could not untie.
They made 21 turnovers and missed 35 of 54 shots.
“They really disrupted us on top,” said rookie Aggies coach Craig Smith, also in his first NCAA tourney as a head coach. Added Merrill, who finished 2-of-9, “Their zone was really good tonight. They made it really tough on us. We practiced against it all week, but you can’t replicate the length and athleticism they have.”
That was expected. The UW revelation of the game was Noah Dickerson, who broke out of a recent slump to put up 20 points and 12 rebounds, spinning senior circles around his 6-11 freshman counterpart, Neemias Queta.
His 14 points in the first half were the drivers in the 12-point halftime spread. Apparently the trappings of the tournament were a significant part of his return to mid-season form, when he dominated at times in the low post.
“I’ve always won at every level, except here (NCAA tourney),” he said. “It feels really good, actually. When I was a little kid, I used to watch this tournament all the time, hoping one day I would have a chance to play in it.”
He was probably in kindergarten when the Huskies last played Utah State, with a similar outcome — a 75-61 triumph in the 2006 tournament’s first round. He wasn’t even in high school the last time the Huskies, led by Isaiah Thomas, won a tournament game.
That was 2011, 68-65 over Georgia of the SEC in Charlotte. The 24-10 Huskies then drew the same opponent in the second round they face Sunday — Midwest Region No. 1 seed North Carolina. The ’11 Huskies took the Tar Heels to the wire on a far-less-than-neutral floor, losing 86-83.
Later Friday night, the No. 1 Tar Heels followed the Huskies onto the floor and did the expected with an 88-73 triumph over 16th-seeded Iona, which held a five-point lead at halftime. To stay close, Iona made 15 threes, most against the Tar Heels in their storied tournament history.
That is unlikely to be weapon of choice for Washington, which has been inconsistent beyond the arc all season. They have to rely on D. Aggies coach Smith was impressed.
“We should have had (in practice) those swimming-pool noodles, just to tip and deflect,” he said. “In practice, those (passing) windows that we see are wide windows. You play against these guys and those windows are shrunk. Their front-line defense is incredible.”
Sunday, all it has to be a lot better.