PULLMAN - The last time Washington had a meltdown against Washington State it took place a few hundred feet from Beasley Coliseum.
Saturday, before the Huskies secured a 68-63 victory, they seemed to be on pace for another night of remorse, this time on the hardwood, after their historic collapse in the Apple Cup.
A 17-point first-half lead melted away and the Huskies found themselves down 56-52 with 5:44 remaining against their nemesis, the Cougars.
Then came buckets from Aziz N’Diaye. Fifth-year senior Scott Suggs twice was undeterred by a hand in his face to make two difficult jumpers. Redshirt freshman Andrew Andrews made four free throws in a manic final 22 seconds.
Bonded together with Desmond Simmon’s fiendish defense against lethal Washington State forward Brock Motum, the Huskies (9-5, 1-0) were able to avoid another cliff dive and held on to beat Washington State (9-5, 0-1) in the Pac-12 opener for each team on Saturday at Friel Court.
“We wouldn’t have won without him,” Washington guard C.J. Wilcox said of Simmons.
Stone-faced after the game, Andrews said the crowd yelling at him to miss free throws only makes him mad. His clutch work helped steady the Huskies at the line, where he was 4-for-4 in the final 22 seconds.
Simmons was pleased and called it his best game at Washington, despite just four points and five rebounds. Motum, who led the conference in scoring last season and was second this year coming into Saturday night, finished with 15 points on 13 shots. He had as many turnovers as free-throw attempts.
Suggs, who appeared to be stuck in the low-hanging fog just outside of Pullman for much of the night, was his usual serene self following the game. He didn’t think much of his crucial jumpers, the first put Washington back ahead 60-59 with 2:38 to go and the second vaulted it back in front again, 62-61, with 1:29 left. His layup on the break ended a personal six-point run and expanded Washington’s lead to three, 64-61, with 1:02 remaining. That set up Andrews’ free throws following a missed 3-pointer by Tacoma’s DaVonte Lacy and two free throws by Mike Ladd.
“I was very pleased with (Suggs’) mental resolve when the game wore down,” Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He still had the mindset, ‘I’m still going to be aggressive,’ and he hit shots for us.”
Washington’s start was exquisite. The Huskies locked down Motum by siccing Simmons on him. The offense was crisp and engaged.
The Huskies blew out to a 9-0 lead when Wilcox (18 points, seven rebounds) hit a 3-pointer. The lead swelled to 17-4 with 10:58 left in the half and grew to its biggest point, 23-6, after N’Diaye scored from in close with no one around him. The 7-footer finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the year.
Meanwhile, Motum was out of sorts. He missed a corner 3-pointer, a runner in the lane and a baseline jumper. He had just two field goals in the first half, both of which were tip-ins, for four points at the break.
Much of that was because of Simmons, who fronted Motum at the elbow. Simmons leaned on him and tracked him even before the ball was put in play. He stretched a denying hand upward and wrapped the other near Motum’s waist as he tried to angle him off.
“I just missed a couple open shots early,” Motum said. “I think that would have changed the whole game or the way he guarded me at least.”
It’s a belief-based approach to defense. Without his teammates helping him with passes over the top or proper communication, Simmons would have been put in a position of risk.
“I knew they were going to have my back,” Simmons said. “We talked about it in scout practices. I had all the confidence in them. They let me get out and deny and pretty much not let him catch it.”
But, Motum’s teammates pecked and clawed to get the Cougars back into the game. By the half, Washington’s sloppiness with the ball and unlikely 3-pointers from Ladd and Will DiIorio cut the Huskies’ lead to 34-27. Ladd was shooting just 29.7 percent on the season from behind the 3-point line and the junior DiIoria had attempted and made just one prior 3-pointer in two career attempts. DiIoria was 3-for-4 from behind the 3-point line on the night, almost becoming the unlikeliest of heroes.
Washington shot 52.2 percent in the first half and Washington State 27.6 percent, yet the Huskies’ lead was a mere seven points. And it become one that would elapse in the second half before Suggs and Andrews steadied them, fending off another pitfall on the Palouse.
“It was just a great collective team effort,” Romar said.