A tale of two halves for the Washington Huskies was eventually decided by the very aspect that Washington has struggled with the most since their recent losing streak: defense. They allowed only 24 second-half points en route to a 77-61 win over Cal Poly Tuesday night at Alaska Airlines Arena.
After falling down 32-22 with just under five minutes to play in the first half, Washington looked destined for a big upset on their own court. Cal Poly was shooting lights out from three, having made nine for their first 18 attempts from beyond the arc, many of which were contested. Matisse Thybulle deciphered first half troubles, explaining that a lot of the guards got caught watching the ball and lost track of their man.
"With a shooting team like Cal Poly you can’t give them any room or else they’re going to make you pay,” said Thybulle.
On the offensive end, the Dawgs couldn’t find an answer to the Mustangs zone defense. Turnovers and inability to penetrate early on left the Huskies stymied in the early going. The tables would eventually turn, however, when a Dominic Green triple catalyzed an 8-0 run to cut Washington’s deficit to 32-30 with 1:40 remaining in the first half. After trading a few buckets, the Huskies went into the break down 37-36.
A three from David Crisp, who saw 15 of his 21 points come in the second half, gave Washington their first lead since they were up 7-6 with 17 minutes left in the first half. From then on, the Dawgs never trailed. Give some credit to the Husky offense, as they scored 55 points in the final 25 minutes of the game with Fultz, Thybulle, and Dickerson joining Crisp as double digit scorers. But the academy award for best performance goes to the defense.
Cal Poly, who was lights out from three early on, only made one of their 10 shots from beyond the arc in the second half against the Huskies. Lorenzo Romar mentioned after the game that they started to switch on screens to combat Cal Poly’s success from three point land. “They may have thrown the ball inside five times max,” he reasoned. “They weren’t playing inside; they were playing outside. We wanted to make sure we constantly had someone on the ball and not let them get any room.”
Washington also refused to shoot themselves in the foot on the glass, only allowing four second chance points all game long. If you combine two big runs for the Huskies, there were 10 minutes of play in which they allowed only two points. If only for a night, the Huskies figured something out on the defensive end. “At first we didn’t have that identity yet,” David Crisp said of Washington’s defensive performance. “Once we really lock in on that and making defense a first priority, we’re going to really take off then.”
Crisp’s claim that defense is Washington’s key to success has evidence to back it up. The Huskies have allowed more than 90 points per game in their five losses this season. They’ve scored 80 points in three of those five games. Bridging the gap between defensive production and offensive output could turn the tides of Washington’s early season struggles.
One downside to the 16-point victory was Washington only had six players who played double digit minutes. With only one game between now and PAC-12 play, ideally guys like Sam Timmins and Carlos Johnson would have had more opportunities to get their feet wet. However, as David Crisp noted following the victory, the Dawgs found a defensive rhythm with a group that included Fultz, Thybulle, Green, and Dickerson. “If it ain’t broke,” he added, “don’t fix it.”
But that’s nitpicking. The takeaway from tonight should be the Dawgs figured something out on the defensively. Romar compared it to planting a seed for a flower. It may take a while to see the fruits of their labor on the defensive end, but sudden results may be around the corner. “We haven’t totally seen the results but we’ve seen some progress,” he added. “And tonight I think we made even more progress.” We’ll see if they can continue that trend on Thursday against a familiar foe in Seattle U.
Opening - “It’s good to see our team go out and play right tonight. We had to adjust to how we wanted to defend this team. That’s a very unique style of play that Cal Poly has. You just don’t see that very often. We talked about some adjustments we would have to make to be able to defend them and we didn’t do a good enough job in the first half executing that. In the second half we did as good a job as you could in guarding what they wanted to do. So I give our guys a lot of credit for that with a two-day turnaround preparing for what they run is just difficult. But our guys did a good job.”
What did you have to remind them about at half? - “Two things. One, we were losing the shooters. It’s just a habit. When there’s penetration you begin to rotate and go to where you’re supposed to be to help and with this team we didn’t want to help. We wanted to stay home. We felt our guards were bigger. We felt that if they drove to the rim, the guy guarding him could contest the shot. We wanted to keep our big guy home and help him contest the shot. That’s what we tried to do, but we would get caught looking where that drive was going and everybody is well-drilled in circling behind the ball. Where the guy was when you turned around was not where he is when you look back. You look back to see if he’s still there and now he’s relocated somewhere else and we were getting beat that way. In the second half we didn’t give into that temptation. We just stayed home with the guy and let the guy that was guarding - even if there was penetration - stay home with that guy.”
Was this as complete a game on defense this year, especially the second half? - “No question. No doubt.”
When the group was getting stops in the second half, was that why you stayed with them as a unit for as long as you did? - “Unfortunately for some of the guys that didn’t play as much, when you play against that team they move you around so much that we decided to just go small. We went with the smaller lineups so we could guard them. With the bigger lineup we thought about going zone. We’ve been playing a lot of zone, but we felt like we could really smother them if we just executed the right way. In order to do that defensive we stayed with the small guys so we could stay in front of them.”
Even when Cal Poly went 9-18 from three in the first half, did you feel like most of those were contested? Or were there breakdowns? - “They weren’t as much breakdowns as much as we just weren’t as detailed enough. One foot more to contest that shot and we just weren’t there. And again, it’s hard to break a habit in one day. We just played Sunday and yesterday we went over some other stuff in case we zoned and today we tried to cover it and it’s just hard to break those habits in one day. But our guys did it a lot better in terms of the execution in the second half.”
How is this also possibly the culmination of all the prior days of practice that the team has put in emphasizing defense? - “There’s no question. You’ve heard me say it before and I hope this is the case. We have whole bunch more games to play but you plant a seed under the soil and you keep driving by and you don’t see anything about the soil. It’s just flat. But there’s something going on under there. And then all of a sudden it breaks through and blossoms. Hopefully that’s what our defense will be like. In the last few weeks we’ve been really addressing it, addressing a lot of different things at that end. We haven’t totally seen the results but we’ve seen some progress. And tonight I think we made even more progress.”
Is that as much on-ball defending by Noah as we’ve seen? Was that by design? - “We didn’t want them to get in a situation where they were turning this corner with the ball screen. That’s what happened in the first half a little bit. He wasn’t switching on the guard. Once he turns and the guy rotates, here we go. Now they are getting open. We just decided we’re going to switch it and you stay home. They may have thrown ball inside five times max. They weren’t playing inside, they were playing outside. We wanted to make sure we constantly had someone on the ball and not let them get any room."
Seen any changes in David Crisp these last three games? - “Playing with a lot of confidence and playing right. Growing up. Maturing. That’s what I see.”
Were the early turnovers ‘effort’ turnovers? - “Just getting ahead of ourselves, playing in a hurry. Like coach Wooden would always say, be quick but don’t hurry. We were hurrying. For a lot of our turnovers I think that was the case - just trying to go too quick, too fast. I didn’t mention this at halftime - we talked about taking our time, getting the ball reversed from side-to-side. We did that a lot more in the second half and we got great, great looks at the basket as a result.”
How did going small affect your offense? - “If we were to stay with two big guys? They were moving around on the perimeter the entire time. So you had one guy guarding the guard on the switch. If you had that other guy now, another big in there, they just keep getting these guys in situations where they are covering little guards running around and eventually they spread you out and eventually they get a three. We watched them play a couple of other teams that had two big guys playing at the same time and they got great shots off of it. So we did not want to give that up. If you go to the other end we’re making a two because we go inside to our big guy and at the other end they are getting a three. We get another two and they get another three. We had to take the threes away. Forty-one percent of their offense comes from three pointers. We felt if we took that away, regardless of how we had to do it, it would help our cause. Coach Callero has done a good job with that team and they just know what they are doing in that system.”
So how did you alter your offensive attack based on that switch to a smaller lineup? - “We started to put guards in the middle of the zone in the second half a lot more. That’s another advantage when we went small. We had four playmakers on the floor at all times. Noah and Malik were able to operate down low. Noah played the majority of those minutes. Those four guys were making plays on the perimeter moving their defense around and that really helped us as well.”
First look at Seattle University - “That’s not going to be an easy game for us, at all. We’re away from our building. Yeah we’re playing in Seattle but it’s away from our building. They play a lot like, not in terms of style, but in terms of possessions - a moderate pace. It won’t be a neck-breaking pace in that game. They’ve played us tough over the years, very tough. They’ve been up double-digits on us so it’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”
So Cal Poly was a good tuneup in terms of playing at the expected pace of SU? - “Oh yeah, definitely. We couldn’t just run up and down the floor tonight. That helped. Again, in the second half our guys did a good job adjusting playing that way.”
Matisse Thybulle and David Crisp
Is this the best defensive performance this year? - “As a team? Yeah. I just think it was a matter of knowing the scout and buying into what our coaches have said. It was hard for us because we switched up how we were guarding the ball and guarding penetration. We were able to stay locked in for 40 minutes and counting on our bigs like Noah to stay in front of those little pesky guards and keep them from getting in the paint and getting shots up was a big deal.”
What was the difference in the second half? - “I think in the first half a lot of us guards got caught watching the ball and we just lost track of our man. With a shooting team like Cal Poly you can’t give them any room or else they’re going to make you pay. We dialed in after the first half and didn’t let any of that happen.”
Anything you can take from this game heading forward? - “Just being able to take what the coaches are saying to us, like during the halftime, and executing what they’re telling us. They told us, don’t help off on the penetration. Stay attached to your man because they are just trying to drive and kick. I think that was big for us. Everybody was locked in. They only made one three the second half and I don’t know how many teams can do that to them because they always get drive and kicks into threes. I think it was good for our guys to see that we play D and give us a little confidence on defense.”
Is it as much fun to play D as it is offense? - “Yeah. At first we didn’t have that identity yet. We’re building to that. Once we see that energy is going - Noah got a standing ovation for playing defense and staying in front of guards and staying at the rim and once we really lock in on that and making defense a first priority, we’re going to really take off then.”
Was it getting frustrating in the first half when they were knocking all those shots down? - “We just had to stay positive, stay together. We couldn’t just, one guy going off and doing his own thing. We’ve just got to stay together and we stayed together that second half. We cut ‘em off, shut their water off.”
Talk about the loose ball you controlled and turned into a circus layin? - “Markelle was in front of me and I didn’t see that there was a dude there and I turned and seen him so I just tried to tip it so he couldn’t get it and then I was going to dive on it, but when I seen I could just go around him and pick it up I was right there by the rim so I just finished it.”
Talk about the play where you were heading out of bounds and flipped it behind your head? - “I seen him there. I was just hoping nobody jumped in front and tipped it off.”
Was it part of the plan to play the same five nearly the whole second half? - “I don’t think that was really a key for us. We weren’t really focused on that. Once we seen we were getting stops and everybody was locked in on defense - if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. We just tried to ride it out.”