SEATTLE – Along with a No. 13 national ranking, the San Diego State Aztecs brought with them to Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Sunday a reputation as one of the nation’s most rugged, disciplined defensive teams.
They proved that status true against the Washington Huskies, forcing the home team into difficult shots and a final point-total not typically associated with victory.
The Aztecs’ defensive acuity was enough, even, to lead UW coach Lorenzo Romar to begin his postgame remarks with a proclamation: “Man, that team is hard to score on.”
Yeah, they were. But on this night, they weren’t nearly as stingy as the Huskies, as Washington held SDSU to its lowest point total since joining the Division-1 ranks in a 49-36 bludgeoning before a home crowd of 6,199.
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The Huskies remain unbeaten at 7-0, and may now insert a convincing victory over a ranked opponent into their NCAA tournament resume.
And given how thoroughly the Huskies buried the Aztecs – whose only previous loss was a 61-59 defeat against the 3rd-ranked Arizona Wildcats in the championship game of the Maui Invitational – it’s not unreasonable to believe now that March might actually matter again for a UW team that hasn’t been to the tourney since 2011.
San Diego State shot just 20.4 percent from the field – 11-of-54 – and only achieved that high of a mark thanks to three garbage-time buckets in the final 2:14.
Before that, the Aztecs went more than 11 minutes and 30 seconds without making a field goal. They shot just 16.7 percent in the first half. They made only two of their 15 attempted 3-pointers. They needed 5:34 to make their first field goal of the game. And after cutting UW’s lead to a whopping 12-10 with 9:08 left before halftime, the Aztecs didn’t make another field-goal until a Dwayne Polee 3-pointer just before the first-half buzzer.
In the end, SDSU set a dubious school record for fewest points scored since joining D1 in 1970; the previous low was 38 against Utah in 1999.
“They’re a great defensive team, but we also feel like we’re a great defensive team and we wanted to just contest every shot,” said UW point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who led the Huskies with 15 points, and totaled six rebounds and three assists. “It was great for us to make it difficult on them, and when you’re on the road, it’s even tougher when you’re not making shots.”
It never got easier, despite SDSU’s stellar effort on the offensive glass; the Aztecs grabbed 21 offensive boards and outrebounded the Huskies 42-36 overall.
But they simply couldn’t put the ball in the hoop, too often driving and forcing shots that drew only iron. Robert Upshaw, UW’s 7-foot center, blocked four shots, including a swat that led to a run-out Williams-Goss semi-dunk.
It was Williams-Goss, the sophomore point guard, who led his team toward separation. He made a 3-pointer to put the Huskies ahead 26-19 with 14:00 to play, then assisted on an Andrew Andrews 3-pointer to give UW a 31-21 advantage less than 1:30 later.
Andrews made another 3-pointer with 9:00 to play, pushing UW’s lead to 36-23, and after Williams-Goss scored a floater and a jumper on consecutive possessions thereafter, the Huskies already had enough points to win.
“We weren’t able to make shots, but again, defense is what can sustain you,” Romar said. “And I think that’s another valuable lesson for our guys tonight. Even when you’re playing and the ball’s not going in the basket for you, if you defend, you still give yourself a chance to be successful.”
Romar said he envisioned potential greatness when the Huskies began practicing this season.
“It was a challenge from day one, and these guys have accepted it,” Romar said. “But I do – I think this could be a special defensive team.”
The 13th-year coach said he didn’t care so much about making a statement, other than to the players under his charge.
Andrews, who scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds, said the same.
Instead, the junior guard said the Huskies wanted to “make a statement for ourselves to get our own little mojo going, that we are a good team and we have what it takes to beat the quote-unquote ‘good teams’ in the media. So, I think that’s what we did.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME — Nigel Williams-Goss led all scorers with 15 points, and also contributed six rebounds and three assists (fixed) in 36 minutes. But the Huskies’ defensive effort was the story of the game, and it’s hard to single out one player when a team holds the opponent to only 36 points and 20.4 percent shooting.
IT WAS OVER WHEN —Williams-Goss made consecutive baskets on consecutive trips to push the Huskies’ lead to 40-23 with 7:49 to play. UW could have stopped scoring at that point and still would have won the game.
STAT OF THE GAME — San Diego State made just 7 of its first 46 field-goal attempts, and scored its fewest amount of points in a game since joining the D1 level in 1970.
WHAT IT MEANS –- This could be a significant victory if the Huskies are in contention for an NCAA tournament bid come March. But more than anything, it proves that UW might actually be a strong defensive team this season, and that the Huskies are on a legitimate path toward relevance.
QUOTABLE --- “I just think the makeup of this team is not the makeup of a team that’s going to question a whole lot. And I think we’ve had two years where we’ve been mediocre. And guys don’t want to be mediocre anymore, so we’ve got to do it.” – Lorenzo Romar on why UW is playing better defense this season
NEXT UP — Washington vs. Eastern Washington, 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14 (Pac-12 Networks)
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple