University of Washington

Huskies have remained comfortably atop of Pac-12. A win Saturday gives them a share of the title

University of Washington head coach Mike Hopkins coaches up the team during a timeout in the first half. The University of Washington played UCLA in a NCAA basketball game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.
University of Washington head coach Mike Hopkins coaches up the team during a timeout in the first half. The University of Washington played UCLA in a NCAA basketball game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.

In the first game of the season, Washington went into halftime trailing Western Kentucky by nine points.

During the break, the Huskies made adjustments. They calmed down. Regrouped. Then, in the second half, they held the Hilltoppers to 19 points and cruised to a double-digit victory.

Plenty of UW wins followed a similar script during the non-conference season. Other times, the Huskies would build a big lead early but allow their intensity to drop off. When that happened, they were forced to hold off late rallies.

Each game, head coach Mike Hopkins said Friday afternoon, provided valuable experience. UW started collecting those reference points last year during Hopkins’ first season. Now, there are very few situations the Huskies haven’t been in.

The result? A 12-1 record in Pac-12 play with just five games remaining. Not only that, but UW will take the floor against Colorado on Saturday night with a chance to clinch at least a share of the regular season conference championship. With a win over the Buffaloes and a victory over Cal next week, the Huskies can claim the title outright.

“Experience through your experiences: That’s where you create great poise, great resiliency and you understand because you’ve been in that situation now,” Hopkins said.

“Last year, we were really inconsistent … There’s just so many experiences that you can bring back and use as lessons for these guys. It’s about them being able to go out there and execute. They’ve done it. That’s the experience.”

The Huskies have been the Pac-12’s steadiest team, shooting to the top of the standings early and remaining there all season.

One of the factors has been the ability of UW’s seniors — David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson and Dominic Green —to keep the team calm in any situation.

In the Huskies’ first game against Colorado in January, the Buffaloes trimmed a once double-figure lead to one point in the second half. But UW responded to the pressure and pulled out the win, clinching its first road sweep in six years.

Afterward, sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell credited the veterans with setting the tone.

“They were able to keep poise,” Nowell said then. “Some of us young dudes, we tend to get riled up when those kind of things happened. They just all came together and said, ‘You know what? This has happened before.’ They’ve been through it. They just told us to relax and keep playing the game that we’re playing.”

The Huskies sit 3.5 games ahead of second-place Arizona State. The Sun Devils (18-8, 9-5) are the only conference team UW has lost to this season. Oregon State (16-9, 8-5) is right behind Arizona State while every other team has at least six losses.

UW played a difficult non-conference schedule but didn’t pick up wins over any of the top 25 teams it played. The Pac-12’s RPI ranks seventh in the country, according to CBS Sports. The Big East is fifth, while the American Athletic Conference is sixth. So while there wasn’t much to gain against Pac-12 opponents, there was certainly plenty to lose.

Bubble team Arizona State quickly learned that lesson. The Sun Devils had solid non-conference wins — including a victory over No. 12 Kansas — but they’ve lacked consistency in conference play.

Arizona State hasn’t won more than three games in a row since December. And the Sun Devils have several bad defeats on their resume, including a 20-point home loss to Washington State earlier this month.

UW has avoided following a similar path. The Huskies opened their Pac-12 schedule with 10 straight wins. After losing to Arizona State on the road, they responded with back-to-back victories over Washington State and Utah.

“I think the guys know what we are and what it takes for us to win,” Hopkins said. “When we’re sharing the ball and obviously you’ve got to be able to make shots, you have the ability to beat anybody on any given night.”

Last year, UW’s longest win streak in Pac-12 play was four games and it was immediately followed by three straight losses. This season, the Huskies have yet to lose back-to-back games at any point.

In Hopkins’ second year, UW has fully embraced his philosophies. The Huskies hold each other accountable. And even when they don’t play well offensively, they have often locked in on defense and found a way to win.

That, Hopkins said, has made all the difference.

“There’s no greater feeling as a coach than when you can see that change, you can see the buy-in, you can see them coming together,” he said. “It’s always the easiest thing to talk about in a press conference. It’s the hardest thing to accomplish.”

Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.