As evidenced by what St. Martin’s did from beyond the 3-point line, it’s safe to suggest Washington’s zone defense is still a work in progress.
So is the Huskies’ approach toward being more aggressive in the paint. But over the game’s last five minutes, a few things started coming together.
UW made a point to attack the interior and from it, came points. Enough points to survive and take a 91-87 win over St. Martin’s on Thursday at the Alaska Airlines Arena.
“I was proud of our guys at the end, being down and during some adversity, some guys made some big plays,” Huskies coach Mike Hopkins said. “We got some big stops when we needed them. It was a great learning game for us today.”
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Tied at 82-82 with 3:21 left, the Huskies weren’t shy about working the Saints in the paint. Noah Dickerson got things going with a layup, and on the next possession, he fed Carlos Johnson for an easy layup.
UW kept St. Martin’s at bay and held an 89-87 lead with 39.9 seconds remaining. The Huskies came out of the timeout and trusted freshman Jaylen Nowell.
Nowell, who was a four-star prospect, went toward the net with about 12 seconds left. He used a crossover to put his defender on the floor and hit a jumper to give the Huskies a 91-87 lead with only a handful of seconds left.
He finished the game with 14 points and was one of five Huskies in double figures. Dickerson led UW with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Tacoma native David Crisp scored 18 points and picked up four assists.
“He’s just, ever since I’ve known him, first game I’ve seen him, he was in middle school and they were like, ‘this kid’s the No. 1 player in the country,” Crisp said of Nowell. “I’m like, ‘Alright. We’ll see.’ I go watch the game and he scores the first 20 points of the game. I’ve been watching him and score and do that. There was no worry with me in trusting him with that.”
Prior to a thrilling finish, the story was how UW struggled on defense.
There were times when the zone defense worked. Like when UW held St. Martin’s for more than three minutes without a point. But there were also moments when the Saints either found holes in the scheme or knew where to be on the court.
St. Martin’s shot close to 53 percent from beyond the arc and nearly 46 percent from the field.
“Defensively, a team like that, one of the things we talked about was, they can shoot,” Dickerson said. “They were going four, five out sometimes where everybody on the court can shoot. ... Even when we went man, it got better but we were still making stupid mistakes.”
Any discussion regarding the Huskies has centered around the team’s ability to improve defensively. The Huskies were among the worst teams defensively in college basketball over the last two seasons.
Enter Hopkins. Aside from his never-ending energy, one of the reasons the school hired Hopkins was for his defense. He was a longtime Syracuse assistant who played a big role in helping the Orange become one of the more consistent defenses in the game.
Hopkins and his staff have used the last six months to refine specific defensive principles. They’ll now have some material to work with.
St. Martin’s built an 11-point lead early by seeking openings. Part of it was the Huskies still finding comfort within the zone. The rest of it was the Saints picking up on where to be on the court.
Saints junior guard Luke Chavez and redshirt junior E.J. Boyce continually found gaps in the defense.
Boyce would often set up on the wing or find room near the top of the key. Chavez was a little more active in terms of where he’d operate.
Chavez scored a game-high 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting – 6 of 10 from beyond the 3-point line. Boyce finished with 22 points. He was 7 of 17 from the field and 6 of 10 on 3-pointers.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re going to play teams that run four and five out,” Hopkins said. “I think the biggest thing when you play teams, with the experience that I’ve had defensively, you have to, if it’s the 3-point shot, you take it away right away.
“It’s gotta be so uncomfortable that they don’t even see the basket. ... The idea of defense is getting them to feel uncomfortable.
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark