Dec. 20, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Andrew Andrews was back from an ankle injury. Scott Suggs kept playing as if he was never hurt for three weeks. Shawn Kemp Jr. continued to emerge upon his return from a knee injury.
For the first time this season, the Huskies were at full strength Thursday night.
And for one of the only times this up-and-down November and December, they played the signature, in-your-shirts defense that coach Lorenzo Romar has demanded around here for more than a decade.
"Nah, that had nothing to do with it," Romar said facetiously with a grin when asked about the added depth.
C.J. Wilcox scored what is becoming a routine 21 points. He also leaped to block a 3-point jump shot 28 feet from the basket to force a turnover; he said it was his first-ever blocked shot out way out there. Aziz N'Diaye had 11 points with nine rebounds - and crashed through the baseline to save an offensive rebound and create a score. And Desmond Simmons' usual aggressiveness on offense and defense became his teammates' norm during Washington's 75-62 lock down of slow-moving Cal Poly at Alaska Airlines Arena.
The Huskies forced 12 turnovers to a team that was committing a national-low 81 in nine games coming into Thursday. Cal Poly went almost 7 minutes without scoring to turn the game into a blowout during the second half.
The Dawgs stayed disciplined and focused as Cal Poly used most of every 35-second shot clock. UW contested passes and shots as Mustang players often shied away from challenging the Huskies' defense in the lane.
Only four Cal Poly jump shots came from inside the paint.
"We were able to rotate our guys more, and our guys were able to stay relatively fresh," Romar said. "That was a big reason we were able to defend the way that we did."
Romar has been working all summer and fall on getting this team to have a tougher, more consistent mentality, especially on defense. Tuesday, he said this team was perhaps too nice.
The wire-to-wire roll past Seattle University last week, the first 12 minutes when they blew out to a 16-point lead on Jackson State last weekend and now Thursday night have offered proof the Huskies may finally be getting the message.
"We knew in our mindset that we had to be solid. We were reminding ourselves during every timeout," senior co-captain Abdul Gaddy said.
His 10 points included a right-handed slam on a breakaway in the second half, after he stole the ball denying a pass on Cal Poly's wing.
The 7,874 fans who came out for the pre-holiday fun weren't the only ones pleased.
"That was maybe our best defensive effort of the year, in terms of our concentration, our focus, and executing our defensive game plan," Romar said.
Suggs had 12 points and four assists while Washington (7-4) allowed its fewest points in a game this season. Cal Poly (4-6) had shocked UCLA at Pauley Pavilion last month.
The Huskies took their largest lead when Suggs got the benefit of an extremely generous, NBA-like continuation foul call that led to a 3-point play. Suggs made the free throw to put UW up 41-29 with 15 minutes left.
That was during a stretch of 6 minutes and 40 seconds that UW did not allow a single point.
With Andrews back and Hikeem Stewart earning more time recently because of his defense, Wilcox was the only Husky to play more than 32 minutes. He, Gaddy and Wilcox all were averaging that many minutes or more entering Thursday.
"We got more rest," Gaddy said. "In this system, picking up full court, pressuring the ball, when you are fresher you can play better defense."
Midway through the second half Wilcox made a play that epitomized Washington's dogged defense. He leaped out past the left wing, nearly 28 feet from the basket, and blocked a jumper by Cal Poly's Chris Eversley. That hustle caused one of the Mustangs' many shot-clock violations, and the 10th of their dozen turnovers.
Even N'Diaye was throwing his 7-foot body around after loose balls. He crashed through photographers seated beyond the baseline to keep an offensive rebound alive. Andrews, playing his first game after missing three with a sprained ankle, converted N'Diaye's hustle into a score that put UW up 60-41 with 9 minutes remaining.
Cal Poly got within 13 inside of 2 minutes, but no closer.
Simmons was his usual scraping, gritty self. As usual, his three points and seven rebounds only told part of his story.
He dived on the floor to grab numerous loose balls. He repeatedly tapped caroms of missed shots out to teammates for offensive rebounds.
At the end of Washington's game-breaking surge midway through the second half, Simmons dived from the lane near the left sideline for a loose ball. The ball kept rolling away from him so he then crawled to finally seize joint possession. UW kept it on the alternating held-ball arrow, and Andrews converted Simmons' hustle into a made jump shot that pushed UW's lead to 60-41.
When the indispensible Simmons exited briefly in the second half Romar yelled "Way to go!" and patted the 6-foot-9 sophomore enthusiastically on the back and back of the head.
It was a subtle reward for playing with the toughness the coach is trying to instill in all Huskies.
"Anytime there was some hustle I was excited," Romar said. "I think our team's identity would be better served if we got as excited over our hustle.
"Those are plays that make the difference in ball games."
It sure made all the difference Thursday. And it produced some of Washington's first sustained momentum this season heading into Saturday afternoon's home game against Northern Illinois, a Dec. 29 game at Connecticut and then the start of the Pac-12 season on Jan. 5 at Washington State.
"A little bit more, you could see some good things," Romar said. "Now there is a pattern going the other way that is a positive. This makes us head in the right direction.
"Are we there yet? No. But what we did, the way we went about our business, is more like what we want from our team."