TEMPE, ARIZ. — Outside an upbeat locker room, standing against a yellow wall inside Wells Fargo Arena’s dingy concourse, Washington players spoke of progress in their pursuit of greater defensive performance.
They said the same things their coach, Lorenzo Romar, has been insisting recently: Statistics and scores aside, the Huskies are getting better.
So on Thursday night, the Huskies left after a surprising 76-65 victory over Arizona State that wasn’t nearly so close. UW led by 24 points in the second half before letting walk-ons close the deal.
“I thought tonight was one of the first times all year that we came out and played like our identity was on the defensive end,” Romar said before the Huskies boarded a bus that would take them to Tucson for Saturday’s game at No. 1 Arizona. “That was our identity. And that’s something we’ve been trying to build and build, and hadn’t quite got there. And I thought on the road, we did a good job of that.”
They did. ASU (11-3, 0-1 Pac-12) made just nine of its 31 field-goal attempts in the first half — that’s a clip of 29 percent — and the Huskies (9-5, 1-0) used their myriad defensive stops to spark a strong transition game that led to quick buckets.
Those buckets also led to a 30-7 run to finish the first half, giving UW a 40-23 halftime lead that had to come as a surprise to approximately every one of the 5,788 in attendance.
“We played defense. That was the main thing,” said senior guard C.J. Wilcox, who led five UW players in double figures with 17 points. “We guarded them as a team. Most of the game we were on the same page, and we were able to get up on them and keep our foot down for the rest of the game.”
ASU guard Jahii Carson, the Pac-12’s fourth-leading scorer, was never a factor. He scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the first half, but he shot just 5 of 12 from the field and committed four turnovers.
It took a committee to force those numbers.
“It’s not one-on-one with him. You’re going to lose that battle,” Romar said. “You have to guard him as a team. And we just tried to, for lack of a better way to put it, zone up off the ball when he had the ball.”
Meanwhile, the Huskies attacked in transition, a pursuit led by freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who scored 12 points and keyed a few breaks by grabbing seven rebounds.
“When we were locked in defensively like that, we were getting stops, and it allows us to get out in transition,” Williams-Goss said. “I think that was the biggest key to our offensive success, was being locked in defensively.”
Sophomore guard Andrew Andrews scored 14 points. Forward Perris Blackwell scored 10 in 22 minutes. Freshman guard Darin Johnson, who played just two minutes in UW’s Sunday victory over Hartford, came off the bench to score 10 points and grab five rebounds.
Even Arizona State’s most impressive scoring run did little to mitigate the first-half lead the Huskies accumulated. A quick 9-0 burst cut UW’s lead to 44-34 with 16:23 left in the game. Romar called timeout to settle the Huskies down, telling them that a few missed shots wouldn’t derail them if they kept guarding as they had in the first half.
“Keep defending,” he said. “If we keep defending, (shots) will go down and we’ll be OK.”
He was right. Washington responded with an 8-0 run, keyed by 3-pointers from Andrews and Wilcox, and the margin wasn’t trimmed below 15 points until garbage time.
After a shaky nonconference schedule during which the Huskies beat nobody of note, they couldn’t have asked for a better start to Pac-12 play. The Sun Devils, whom the Huskies have defeated eight consecutive times, were favored to win by 11 points.
“We’re starting to come together,” Romar said he told his players before the game. “Let’s play like it. This was maybe a culmination of us getting better and better here and there.”
Said Wilcox: “It just shows the progress that we’ve made over this nonconference season. It just shows we’re not as bad as people may say.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME — It’s hard to choose one after five Huskies scored in double-figures, and the entire team did a pretty solid job defending Arizona State guard Jahii Carson. C.J. Wilcox was UW’s leading scorer with 17 points, so he gets the nod. Nigel Williams-Goss (12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) is a close second.
IT WAS OVER WHEN — After ASU scored nine consecutive points to trim UW’s lead to 44-34 early in the second half, Andrew Andrews and Wilcox each made 3-pointers as part of an 8-0 run that more or less silenced ASU for the rest of the game.
STAT OF THE GAME — ASU shot just 29 percent from the field in the first half, the biggest reason why the Huskies were able to close that period on a 30-7 run.
QUOTABLE — “Regardless of what the statistics say, I think as a team we’ve felt that we’ve been getting better. We’re getting more comfortable with our new defensive scheme which we changed kind of midway through the preseason. I think it kind of all came together tonight.” – Williams-Goss on UW’s defensive progress
WHAT IT MEANS — Maybe the Huskies’ situation isn’t as dire as some believed after they struggled to beat teams like Hartford and Montana during non-conference play. UW looked like a completely different team on Thursday night. This is a team that is going to have to win by playing defense, and as Lorenzo Romar said afterward, the Huskies’ focus on that end of the court is getting better. On Thursday, the results were tangible. By far UW’s best win of the season.
NEXT UP — Washington at No. 1 Arizona, 11 a.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Networks.