Something was different about Tuesday night in Alaska Airlines Arena, it may have been the post-Rose Bowl malaise that Husky fans were feeling as they had to shift from rooting for football to cheering on the basketball team less than an hour later.
The final non-conference game for the Huskies didn’t have much in the way of pomp and pageantry. The vibe in the stands was also the same on the court, as UW found itself trailing by as much as 13 points to Cal State Fullerton.
“We come out kind of sluggish but we kick it up but we definitely need to start figuring out how to start games the way we finish,” Washington guard Jaylen Nowell said.
“It’s something we need to change, especially when Pac-12 play begins, teams are aggressive in the Pac-12. We’re not gonna get all the calls that we get down the stretch so we need to start games the way we finish and that’s something that we’re focused on as we get ready to play Washington State.”
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The slow starts have been a common theme for the Huskies this season. Though the Huskies are 9-4 heading into Saturday’s conference opener against WSU — and UW was able to rally against Cal State Fullerton, 84-76, too — they’ve trailed at the half in seven of those games.
“I’m sick of talking about it,” Washington head coach Mike Hopkins said.
“It seems like it’s the same type of story every game. Gotta have better starts, you look at this game—you look at Western Kentucky, down nine at halftime and win the game by 17. We were down 13, had a chance to be down 16 and what we win by.... nine? We gotta do that from the beginning of the game.
“Our energy level was not there where it needs to be at the start of the game. It felt like we were running in mud.”
Outside shooting seemed to be the culprit for a lot of the Husky frustrations in the first half. With missed shots came images of Hopkins virtually grabbing what hair he had left an fans screaming things like, “Fullerton is 4-9!”
The Husky offense shot 40 percent in the first half, 14 percent from 3point land. In the second half, things changed drastically. Washington shot above from 50 percent from the field and forced nine Fullerton turnovers.
“It was one of the main things he (Hopkins) talked about coming in at halftime, he made it a point of emphasis on not just offense but on the defensive side as well,” Nowell said. “We made sure to run them off the line and they didn’t get all the way to the hoop and we contested mid-range jumpers.”
Even if the crowd was frustrated, they were still into the ballgame and it was some players feel that it was the crowd that helped feed them energy in their second half comeback.
“It’s no coincidence, whenever we go on a run and the crowd is getting into it,” point guard David Crisp said.
“If you go back and watch, look at the defensive clips. We get stops, were running. It’s flow, guys are moving the ball and taking good shots. We’re getting good looks at the rim and the defense starts to get more stops. That was definitely a big turning point, once we started getting stops in a row and started getting out running, you could tell there was a different energy.”
Hopkins: Pac-12 gets bad rap
The Pac-12’s strength as a conference has been more punchline than positive thanks to poor non-conference play from its schools. This week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll did not contain a single Pac-12 school.
Hopkins believes too much is made about non-conference games.
“I feel there were a lot of teams in our league that played a lot of tough teams-played really tough schedules. They write what they wanna write, but I think the article that kinda bothered me was this article that said, “The Pac-12 has its worst December, also the Big East.” Ours is highlighted, underlined and italicized,” he said.
Hopkins said Pac-12 schools are dealing with injuries while others have done well but aren’t recognized for it.
“I think the league is under attack a little bit but I think there’s some good teams in our league,” Hopkins said. “I mean you look at Oregon and they’ve got one of the best coaches in the country and they’re playing without one of the best players in the country in Bol Bol and they’re playing without Kenny Wooten.
“USC is playing without Kevin Porter and Charles O’Bannon, those are two McDonald’s All-Americans. Arizona—they’ve had a really good non-conference schedule and they’ve picked up a few good wins. Arizona State does it again, beating top-ranked Kansas. They don’t talk about the good stuff, they focus on the bad.”