Cal Poly is the kind of program the Washington Huskies should defeat easily, even in a down year. Tuesday’s game should have been a tune-up, a romp, the kind of affair that concludes with walk-ons on the court and starters relaxing on the bench.
After a regrettable first half, the Huskies kind of, sort of got there. But it took a while. And they had to work a little harder for this one than a Pac-12 team should against a mid-major opponent, especially one picked by media to finish last in the Big West standings.
Still, there are a few positives to glean from the Huskies’ 77-61 win at Hec Edmundson Pavilion before a crowd of 7,175 on Tuesday night: chiefly, they didn’t lose. And they actually, truly played defense. Like, real defense, the kind that implied significant practice.
That was the primary reason why the Huskies were able to finally create some distance between themselves and an inferior opponent. Cal Poly shot only 32.3 percent from the field and just 23.5 percent in the second half, leading by a point at the break before slowly watching the Huskies build a double-digit lead they did not relinquish.
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Once the Huskies limited Cal Poly’s ability to draw help defenders and pass to open shooters, they were able to build a bigger lead.
“We didn’t do a good enough job in the first half of executing that. In the second half, we did as good of a job as I think you could in guarding what they wanted to do,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “So I give our guys a lot of credit for that, with a two-day turnaround, preparing for what they brought. It’s just difficult. But our guys did a good job.”
The Mustangs (5-7) made only one field goal during an eight-minute span in the second half, during which time the Huskies ripped off an 18-2 run to turn a 46-46 tie into a 64-48 lead with 6:11 to play.
Sophomore David Crisp, who led all scorers with 21 points and added eight rebounds in 39 minutes, said UW coaches preached at halftime to stick with Cal Poly’s guards on the perimeter, and not help on dribble penetration.
“I think in the first half, a lot of us guards got caught watching the ball and we just lost track of our man,” said sophomore guard Matisse Thybulle, who had 15 points and five rebounds. “With a shooting team like Cal Poly, you can’t give them any room or they’re going to make you pay. We dialed it in after the first half and didn’t let any of that happen.”
Sophomore forward Noah Dickerson was essential. He finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and was mostly successful defending smaller, quicker players as the Huskies switched screens defensively.
Dickerson was often the only forward on the floor for the Huskies, who opted for a four-guard lineup in order to keep up with Cal Poly’s quicker guards.
“We felt we could really smother them if we just executed the right way,” Romar said, “and in order to do that, defensively, we stayed with the small guys so that we could stay in front of them.”
Crisp started UW’s big run by chasing down a loose ball and turning it into a layup. He later made a 3-pointer that pushed UW’s lead into double-digits, and he made 8-of-9 from the free-throw line.
Thybulle had an emphatic put-back dunk that kept UW’s lead at 16 points with 4:34 to play. Star freshman guard Markelle Fultz was mostly quiet, though he finished with 12 points and five assists and had an impressive dish to Dickerson for an easy dunk after wrapping a pass around a help defender.
It helped that the Mustangs simply did not shoot very well in the final 20 minutes. Cal Poly made 13 field goals in the first half. Nine of them were 3-pointers. The Mustangs attempted 18 of those, seemingly content to pepper the Huskies with perimeter jumpers whenever they were available.
Kyle Toth, a fifth-year senior guard who entered the game making 3-pointers at a 54.8 percent clip, made three of them in the first half. Sophomore guard Donavan Fields attempted three and made all of them, and banked in a driving layup that gave Cal Poly a 32-22 lead with 4:43 left before halftime.
But the Huskies (6-5) closed the half on a 14-5 run, 3-pointers by Dominic Green and Thybulle helping to trim Cal Poly’s halftime lead to 37-36.
Cal Poly didn’t make its first 3-pointer of the second half until 2:47 remained – they made only 1-of-10 from long range in the second half – by which point the Huskies had already extended their lead enough to sub seldom-used guards Bitumba Baruti and Dan Kingma into the game.
UW’s final basket was Kingma’s banked-in 3-pointer in the final minute.
Against Cal Poly, that’s probably the way it should be.
Said Romar: “It’s good to see our team go out and play right tonight.”