SEATTLE – Progress for this Washington Huskies men’s basketball team will not be measured by margin of victory during these early nonconference games.
The focus of coach Lorenzo Romar – and, he hopes, the focus of his team – will be instilling a more disciplined defensive attitude, one that did not exist as the Huskies slogged their way through the 2013-14 season.
So, the Huskies’ poor first-half shooting during their 63-48 victory over crosstown rival Seattle University on Friday night at KeyArena will be a little easier to swallow. Because the Huskies defended, for 40 minutes, like a team that cares about doing that again.
Such defense, Romar said, appeared last season in “three games, I think. The beginning of conference – I think Utah, Colorado and someone else. Then, there it went after that. With the rim protector back there, it’s better than last year at this point, because we have someone to protect the rim.”
He was referring to 7-foot center Robert Upshaw, who was credited officially with only three blocked shots, but seemed to have swatted at least twice that.
With Upshaw and Shawn Kemp Jr. anchoring the front line, and guard Mike Anderson chasing SU leading scorer Isiah Umipig, the Huskies were able to limit the Redhawks to just 28.6 shooting from the field, and only 3-for-21 from 3-point range.
Umipig, who scored nearly 20 points per game last season and made 13 of his 18 3-point attempts in SU’s first two games this year, finished with only 10 points on 4-for-19 shooting.
The goal, junior guard Andrew Andrews said, was to “limit his 3s. Our main scout on him was we knew that he was shooting like 70-something percent from the 3-point line.”
This victory did not come without frustration. Washington (2-0) made just 8-of-29 from the field in the first half, and suffered through two separate five-minute stretches without scoring. Seattle U coach Cameron Dollar installed a pesky zone defense designed to limit touches for the Huskies’ post players, and for 20 minutes, it worked marvelously.
It was only thanks to similarly bad shooting by SU, which made 9-for-32 in the first half, that UW trailed only 21-20 at halftime. That, and a trio of first-half 3-pointers by reserve guard Quevyn Winters.
“We felt like as long as we played defense,” Andrews said, “we’re always going to be in the game.”
It helped when they started making shots, too. Andrews himself knocked down three 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the second half, sparking a 19-4 run that led to a 48-32 lead with 10 minutes to play.
The Huskies finished with a 37.3 percent clip from the field, but made 14-of-30 in the second half and 5-of-12 from 3-point range after hitting only 3-of-14 from outside before halftime.
“I think we did a better job attacking the zone, getting it in and kicking it back out and making their defense suck in so we could get open shots on the perimeter,” Winters said.
During that span, too, the Huskies moved sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss to the middle of the floor as part of their strategy against Seattle U’s halfcourt trap.
Williams-Goss responded by catching a pass against that press, dribbling toward the rim with a numbers advantage, then dishing to Shawn Kemp Jr. for an easy dunk. Kemp dunked four times en route to 12 points and seven rebounds.
“Shawn Kemp, I thought, was just an absolute warrior out there tonight,” Romar said.
Seattle (1-2) cut the lead to 54-48 on a Jadon Cohee runner with 2:51 to play. But Williams-Goss responded with a runner of his own, and the Redhawks didn’t score again.
Winters (12 points), Williams-Goss (11) and Andrews (11) joined Kemp in double-figures. Upshaw scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
“Different times in the game, different people stepped up and helped us,” Romar said. “I thought it was a really good road win for us – a team win.”
Cohee and Umipig led SU with 10 points each. Guard Jarell Flora, who averaged 15.5 points in the Redhawks’ first two games, scored only eight points on 4-for-16 shooting.
“When you look at the percentages they shot,” Andrews said. “… It’s a big step for us.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME — When the Huskies couldn’t make anything in the first half, Quevyn Winters kept them in the game by knocking down three 3-pointers. He finished with 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc in 21 minutes.
IT WAS OVER WHEN — The Huskies began their march to the free-throw line with 1:21 remaining. They made only 5-of-8 down the stretch, but Seattle U didn’t score in the final 2:50 and never cut the margin lower than six points.
STAT OF THE GAME — Seattle shot just 28.6 percent from the field, and only 3-for-21 from 3-point range.
QUOTABLE --- “We were settling in the first half and bodies were standing, and we weren’t trying to get the ball inside. I think in the second half, bodies started moving more, Quevyn hit a shot, ‘Drew hit a few, and just kind of loosened things up.”
WHAT IT MEANS — Seattle U isn’t the best team the Huskies will play this season, but they’re far from the worst. Containing Isiah Umipig the way they did has to be considered a step forward, because it seemed like any gifted scorer could have a big night against UW a year ago. They look, so far, much more focused defensively, and have shot-blockers to help out when their guards get beat. That showed up in this game.
NEXT UP — Washington vs. Pacific, 5 p.m., Sunday, KeyArena (Pac-12 Networks).
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple