By now, it should have dawned on Husky fans that the 2015-2016 is going to be filled with equal parts entertainment and heartache. That was always going to be the case, and these Hoop Dawgs are certainly doing their part to live up to their billing.
“If you’re a fan I imagine you enjoyed that,” announced a worn-out Lorenzo Romar after the win. “It was a gut-check win for us. We’ve had more experienced teams than this and didn’t pull it out. We recovered twice tonight. There were so many heroes tonight. I’m happy we won it as a team and stayed in it mentally. Now we move on to the next.”
It’s also what learning looks like, and what a great lesson Friday night’s win was.
“I wasn’t going to lose that game,” said a beaming Matisse Thybulle after the game. “That’s all I was thinking. It’s a big statement for us to win this game so I did whatever I could to make it happen and I think that’s the attitude a lot of players had in overtime.”
Thybulle was the team’s unsung hero against the Bruins. Or at least one of them, since most of the rotation could all make similar claims on the night. Noah Dickerson didn’t score a point and ended up fouling out, yet he ended up with one of the defensive plays of the game with a block and steal with less than a minute in regulation that helped set up an Andrew Andrews three.
“Today was a great test for us and I’m glad we came out on top and got the experience,” Andrews added after tying a career high with 35 points. “We came out fidgety in the first half, but we started to settle down and make plays. We don’t stop. There will be up and downs with this team but I think we’re starting to get solid. We can hang with anybody if we put in the effort.”
Andrews elicits a lot of grief for his shot selection at times, but he was nails when the Huskies needed a big bucket and at the free throw line, where he canned 17 of 19 attempts. “Any time a game gets close, something in me makes me want to make a play,” he explained when asked about his five-point run in the second overtime through a three and steal-dunk that helped seal the win.
The learning experience continued for the young pups, who have faced a lot of zone defense over the last couple of weeks - something Andrews acknowledged after Friday’s game. “I think it was experience,” he said. “(UC-Santa Barbara) zoned us the whole game last time and we were stagnant. With that experience we were able to attack it this time and get open looks instead of contested ones.”
“We can point out… look what happens when we focus,” said Romar, circling back to the team’s growing maturation. “I thought we had good focus. That team is hard to guard. Our team did a good job. It’s unfortunate that we dropped a couple because of a lack of focus, but we had it tonight.”
The scout is out on the Huskies. Washington entered the season a total mystery but over the last two months they’re no longer the conference’s biggest curiosity. They’re a young team with immense potential, but they’re also a team of contrasts. They’re the second highest scoring team in the Pac-12, averaging 83 points a game, yet they have the worst field goal percentage in the conference (42 percent.) They give up more points per game (73 points) than all but UCLA, yet are one of the top defensive teams in the Pac-12 percentage wise. They are the top shot-blocking team in the country, the conference’s best rebounding team, and are second in steals behind Oregon. So they’re obviously doing some things very, very right, but they’re still learning and adapting.
Washington isn’t a particularly good shooting team, even on its best night, and the last three weeks they’ve been awful from behind the arc, shooting under 25 percent. It makes it tough for an offense to get into the paint when opposing defenders are sagging three feet off the ball, but that’s exactly what teams are doing – daring Washington to shoot. Washington altered their style of play over the course of the UCLA game, taking advantage of the Bruins’ foul trouble by getting into the paint. They manufactured buckets until the shots started falling – which they did at key times.
“I just thought we did what we’ve been talking about,” Romar said. “Dejounte (Murray) was amazing against the zone. Andrew Andrews was hitting shots. David Crisp hit some shots. Matisse Thybulle his some shots. We took some bad threes early, but then we settled down.”
So what did Washington learn about themselves after Friday night’s thriller? Among other things, they learned how to win ugly. It’s an important lesson and an essential skill for a team with aspirations of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Some might suggest that winning ugly has become even more important due to the universally hated new foul emphasis - especially the way the Dawgs play. They make opponents play ugly. They try and break up rhythm and force teams to play faster than they want to.
UCLA packed it in, trying to use their size advantage in the paint while letting the Huskies flail away from outside. The strategy worked for the most part, until Washington’s guards started hitting shots and making the Bruins pay for their disrespect – or neglect.
Romar is fully committed to the team's learning process. He knows this team is going to have its ups and downs. The hope is that for every UCSB or Oakland loss, there’s a win over a team like UCLA.
There will be a time to tighten the screws, and it will probably come sooner than later.
“Once you know something, you have to be held accountable for it,” Romar said of the team’s learning process. “If you do it a couple of times and they don’t get it you repeat it until they get it. Then there comes a point when they know it and now it’s unacceptable for them to make that mistake. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Washington took a big step forward Friday, but there won’t be any time to celebrate with the high octane USC Trojans coming to town less than 48 hours later - a team more similar to the Huskies than UCLA.
Washington can’t let off the gas for a moment.
“If we were undefeated that would be an issue,” said Romar. “But we’re not. Hopefully we’ve learned from losses that we can’t win games by walking in.
“We cannot coast and come up on top. Non-conference games teach you a lot of lessons. I think we’ve learned a lot in the non-conference schedule.”