Without senior center Perris Blackwell, who was held out of the game due a concussion five days before, and a cringe-worthy knee injury to Jernard Jerreau moments into the game versus the Seattle University Redhawks, Washington's potent front court depth was suddenly rendered razor thin. On to Plan B - a game plan Husky fans are intimately familiar with; Small Ball.
"We were out there playing a lot of times on straight scrap and will and determination," Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said after the Huskies came back from an early double-digit deficit to beat Seattle 88-78.
"Those are the wins that you love."
The Huskies coaching staff loaded up on wings during the offseason, but the newcomers probably didn't imagine how much they'd be needed right out of the gate.
Four guard rotations have been a staple at Washington since Romar's first year at Montlake well over a decade ago, and it didn't take long for the Huskies to resurrect their past success behind the energetic play of junior transfer Mike Anderson and freshman Darin Johnson. Enduring a blistering run behind Redhawk point guard Isiah Umipig which saw Seattle surge to a 10-point lead, the Huskies were reeling. They quickly abandoned their dual forward strategy, swapping sophomore Gilles Dierickx for the long limbed Anderson, who immediately went to work at both ends of the floor. The athletic wing smothered Umipig, who led the Redhawks with 22 points - though he connected on just seven of his 24 field goal attempts.
"He was a major part of their offense," said Anderson afterwards of Umipig. "So I had to make sure I had him a little rattled…just make sure he didn't score."
Despite a glaring height mismatch in the paint, Anderson - along with Johnson - ramped up the intensity and that helped the Dawgs catch fire from outside. A three pointer by sophomore Andrew Andrews got the ball rolling, and the Huskies went on a tear, tying the game at 28.
"It started with Mike pressuring the ball and got stops when we needed them," said sophomore guard Andrew Andrews. "Romar's been preaching to us that runs always start on the defensive end and they carry over to offense - so that was a big part. We were getting stop and then we started making our shots."
It was at that point that C.J. Wilcox finally broke a 1-5 shooting slump and drilled two three pointers. Just as quickly as they fell behind, the Huskies entered half-time with a nine point lead. They never looked back.
"(Anderson) does all the little things that aren't going to show up on the stat sheet but they are things that need to get done," said Wilcox. "He held Umipig to seven points in the second half…having someone like that you can throw on a key player is big for us."
As wins go, a victory over Seattle isn't particularly noteworthy. Later this season, the dramatics of this game will be long forgotten as the conversation changes to the likes of Indiana and Connecticut. But make no mistake: This was a big win. Were it last season, the Huskies wouldn't have overcome a deficit like the one they faced in the early going.
Not only did they lack the bodies to replace three key players (Desmond Simmons is out with a knee injury until mid-December) but they lacked the grit to persevere through such a dramatic turn of events. Seattle University, coached by former UW assistant Cameron Dollar, is no longer the patsy it once was. They were picked to finish second in the WAC and came heavily armed with potent guards. The Huskies deserve credit for overcoming so much early adversity in the face of a decent opponent.
"We had to pull together and see what we were made of early," said Wilcox. "We lost three of our bigs, a big part of our offense and defense."
One look at the box score reveals just how inspired their play really was.
Early season games are notorious for being sloppy, but the Huskies bucked the trend. Washington had just nine turnovers on the evening while dishing out an impressive 14 assists. There's no singling out one player for this performance because the whole team stepped up. The five guards who made up the rotation combined for all but 10 of UW's points. They were led by Wilcox, who scored 22, and by the timely shooting of Andrews, who poured in 21. In spite of the size disadvantage, the Washington guards grabbed 33 rebounds, led by Anderson's eight boards and Wilcox and Johnson, who grabbed seven apiece.
Most encouragingly, they were superb defensively.
Despite Umipig's hot early shooting, the Huskies held Seattle to 44 percent shooting from the floor, with Anderson again leading the way. The total team effort saw double-digit scoring efforts from Andrews, Wilcox, Johnson (16) and Anderson (12). Touted freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss scored just four points in his Husky debut but he dished out six assists and was a menace defensively throughout the game.
In review, this was Husky basketball. In many ways, the first game of the season was confirmation that we can finally close the book on the disappointment of last year. New faces and a new attitude have given Husky fans reason to cheer again. It was a bittersweet win, watching Jarreau laying beneath the basket writhing in pain, but that injury forced the Dawgs to dig deep and adapt against a hungry opponent with something to prove.
This game will serve them well as they look ahead to a daunting December schedule that is sure to test their meddle.
"We told our team that people will see the score of this game and probably not think twice about it and not know what happened in the game," Romar said. "Down the road people will see we won this game. I don't think people understand how big a win this was for us and how gutsy and how much of a character win this was. We've had big wins on the big stage in the past and come through, but in terms of pulling a game out when the chips were really down and our guys never got down on themselves or frustrated - this is one of the more special wins for me as a head coach since I've been here."
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