The Eagles were as good as advertised, providing the Huskies their biggest test of the young season. Deadly from behind the arc and not intimidated in the least by their bigger cross-state cousins or lofty national ranking, EWU canned their first three 3-point attempts of the game to build an early 12-6 lead. As advertised, they kept on shooting. The same team that beat Indiana in Bloomington over Thanksgiving break and clobbered Seattle U at Key Arena a week later, the Eagles had clearly come to play and draw another big scalp.
Washington opened the game with their worst half of play this season, futilely flailing away from behind the three-point line on 1-9 shooting while coughing up easily avoidable turnovers.
The Huskies countered with Robert Upshaw, who stepped in at the 15 minute mark and quickly took over the game. The big center calmed down the jittery Dawgs, who surrendered seven early turnovers as they struggled to find any offensive rhythm. Upshaw’s 10 points paced the Huskies during the first half. He dominated the paint in his usual fashion, protecting the rim like none other. His game high 21 points came on an efficient 8-10 from the floor while grabbing nine rebounds and swatting away another six shots to add to his nation-leading average. And though he left a handful of the points on the table after shooting just 0-6 from the charity stripe in the first half, he hit five key free throws in the second half to narrow the gap, including three of four in crunch time as Washington pushed ahead in the late moments.
“We were a little rattled but we got together,” said the sophomore center after the game. “We talked to each other, and we put it together and won the game. They were making shots; they’re a good team. They’ve had a good start to their season but we had to settle down and go by what we’re doing in practice and executing. I think that’s what we did and that’s how we won this game.”
Upshaw was asked about his sketchy free throw shooting afterward. “I made them when they counted and my team stuck with me and kept giving me the ball,” he said.
At the quarter mark of the season, we’ve got a pretty good idea of who Washington is, and this wasn’t the first time they needed a jump start in the locker room at half-time.
The Huskies slowly got things going after intermission as the Eagles found themselves in foul trouble. UW landed in the bonus just eight minutes into the second frame. After Andrew Andrews hit his second three-pointer and sank three free throws, Eastern's 11-point halftime lead was cut to four with 15:29 remaining.
But the Huskies were plagued by poor execution and a lack of poise all game long. They paid a heavy price for their miscues as the Eagles again surged ahead to double-digits. After rebounding an Eastern miss, Shawn Kemp, Jr found himself in mid-air, tossing a transition pass out of bounds beyond the reach of a speeding Mike Anderson. Quevyn Winters was then flagged for an intentional foul, and on the ensuing possession, the Eagles calmly drained a three out of the corner off the inbounds pass, eventually pulling away to a 10-point lead with 11:22 left in regulation.
“I wasn’t close to losing my coat tonight,” Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said when asked about his visibly frustrated demeanor on the sideline. “I was probably more disappointed in a couple of our decisions than I was the officiating, to tell you the truth.”
This is a resilient Husky team, and they’ve shown a penchant for overcoming adversity several times during this young season. None have tested their mettle quite like this though.
“We get frustrated when we don’t execute,” explained Upshaw. “It comes from us. The team we have this year, we’re a bunch of fighters. We’re competitive guys. We fight. We fought back in a lot of games this year and we fought back in this one.”
“It’s a tribute to our poise," added Nigel Williams-Goss, who had 19 points on the night, including one of two dagger three-pointers - the other coming from Darin Johnson - to help UW close out the win. "We were down double-digits at halftime; we stayed together. Again it goes to our competitiveness. Our competitive nature doesn’t allow us to give up. We’re going to keep fighting until the buzzer sounds. When you do that, when you play for 40 minutes, you’re tough to beat. That’s what we did tonight.”
As the game wore on, the Huskies traded paint with the Eagles, who fouled with reckless abandon. UW slowly chipped away at the Eastern lead until they finally earned their first lead of the second half with two minutes remaining.
This wasn’t well-executed, spit-shined and polished Husky Basketball. This was winning ugly. Let there be no doubt that the Huskies were lucky to come away with the victory. As one errant pass after another ratcheted up the pressure, the unease from the sideline slowly grew. But give Washington credit; they didn’t panic. They hit key shots with the game on the line. Johnson, who has struggled out of the gate this year, drilled his heart-stopping three with under a minute left to put the Huskies up five. The bucket gave Washington some badly needed breathing room, and answered the closing minute heroics of Eastern sharpshooter Tyler Harvey.
“They have a great belief that they are going to go out and win ball games, regardless of who they are playing or where,” Coach Romar said of the Eagles after the game. “And that’s special to have those traits with a team. But through adversity, I thought we did a really good job. We pulled together and really gathered ourselves and had a great focus down the stretch in that game. We just whittled away at their lead through defense, and some guys hit some big shots. Robert Upshaw did a great job protecting the rim and then using his size to create problems on the offensive end.”
Some would call this a character-building win; it also exposed the fragile underbelly of Washington’s inconsistent offense. The inconsistency in scoring and running offense in the half-court is a flaw the team has flirted with all season, and it's something that may ultimately bite them without improvement. But this is a team built on defense and this win underscored that core value. Washington has faced similar deficits in other games this season, and rebounded in the second half to come out on top. It's something they talked about at halftime.
“That’s a character win,” Romar said. “UTEP, Long Beach State, this one - these are wins where when we play in our conference we’ll be able to draw from and be able to gain confidence from this.”
“We did say, we were in this position last year (losing at halftime to Eastern)” added William-Goss when asked about what was said in the locker room at half-time. “But I think it’s been most of the times this year we’ve been down at half - we were losing to Seattle U at half, were losing to Long Beach State at half. So we tried to draw on recent experience. We’ve been here before and we can get through it.”
It may not have been a win worthy of an undefeated, top 20 team, but a couple of weeks from now, with conference play quickly approaching, no one will remember, let alone care how it was won. That is except for the Huskies, who avoided a costly learning experience and now have another gritty win they can lean on come Pac-12 play.
Beach's Bits: EWU
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