David Crisp waits for the cracks to show: The frustration, the yelling, the bickering.
It’s what happens when opponents are struggling against a locked-in Washington defense, like Colorado was in the second half of the Huskies’ 66-61 Pac-12 tournament semifinal victory on Friday night.
When Crisp sees it, he lets his teammates know.
It’s like a cue.
“From then on, we just got to pour it on,” he said. “Don’t give them anything.”
After the game, head coach Mike Hopkins was direct in his evaluation. Defense, he said, is why UW wins. It’s been the same all season. It’s why the Huskies won the Pac-12 regular season title, and it’s why they’ll play for the tournament championship on Saturday night.
At halftime, first-seeded UW trailed No. 5 seed Colorado 33-27. The Huskies fell behind 8-0 in the game’s opening minutes, not scoring until Dominic Green hit a corner 3-pointer with 15:39 left before the break.
Crisp was careful with the word he chose to describe UW’s slow start. It wasn’t a lack of energy, he said. The Huskies just didn’t have a sense of urgency. It seemed like they were just waiting for the switch to flip.
“Sometimes you got to create your own positive energy and just create that sense of urgency,” he said. “That’s why sometimes we get down and we come back in the second half and it’s like, ‘Man, this team looks like a whole new team.’ It’s because that sense of urgency kicks in.”
UW had some help finding it this time. Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell, who finished 14 points, five rebounds and four assists, easily pointed to the moment when the Huskies started to turn the game around. It happened in the first half, right after assistant coach Will Conroy relayed a simple message.
“Coach Conroy came to us and was like, ‘You know, we can lose this game. No win is automatically in the book for any of us,’” Nowell said. “When he said that, it kind of turned us on and made sure we kept going.”
UW outscored the Buffaloes 22-5 over the first 8 minutes and 37 seconds of the second half. Colorado hit just one field goal during that stretch. By the time it was over, the Huskies had a 52-38 advantage. And by the time it was over, the Buffaloes were arguing.
“When you start seeing dudes getting mad at each other on other teams, yelling at each other and dudes just crumbling, that’s when we know,” said senior Noah Dickerson, who had seven points and 11 rebounds.
“This defense just gets in their heads. They’re not scoring. They can’t get stops. Our best offense is our defense. We get run-outs and things like that. When our defense starts, it’s something serious.”
The Buffaloes shot 20 percent (6-for-30) from the field in the second half, including 2-for-16 from the 3-point line. They finished with 18 turnovers.
“After a steal or a shot clock violation, we’re out there screaming ready to get back on offense and score and then come back and do it all over again,” said sophomore guard Nahziah Carter. “That’s the funnest thing, to be able to cut somebody’s water off and not have them be able to drink any. It’s just amazing.”
UW senior Matisse Thybulle, a finalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, fouled out with 3:08 left in the game. But before that, the back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year left his mark. He finished with 12 points, three blocks and one steal, tying the conference’s all-time steals record of 320. With one steal in the championship game, he’ll pass Gary Payton.
“You always have to know where he is on the floor,” said Colorado forward Tyler Bey, who finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds. “He can affect the game in a lot of different ways. He’s a special, special defender, there’s no doubt about that.”
UW’s lead started dwindling when Thybulle left the game. With 1:34 remaining, the Buffaloes pulled within six points, 60-54, after a layup from Evan Battey and two free throws from Bey.
Dickerson was fouled at the other end but went 0-for-2, opening the door for Colorado to pull within four points on two more free throws from Bey. The Buffaloes then fouled Crisp, who hit 1-of-2 from the line to give the Huskies a 61-56 advantage.
Then it was defense — again — that got UW the ball back. Carter took a charge, which led to a Dickerson free throw. After Bey tipped in a Colorado miss, the Buffaloes called a timeout trailing 62-58 with 26.2 seconds left.
Green then hit two foul shots for the Huskies, stretching the advantage to 64-58 with 22 seconds remaining. McKinley Wright responded, knocking down a 3-pointer to get Colorado within three points.
But the Buffaloes lost sight of Crisp, and Nowell found him wide open at the other end for the layup that produced the final score.
“Something we struggled with is maintaining leads and being able to step on guys’ throats when we get going,” Thybulle said. “And I think it showed a little bit today, we weren’t going to let up. A lot has to do with focus, focus and energy.
“And we know what’s on the line at this point, and no one is willing to give that up. We knew we had to stay focused and locked in, and by doing that we were able to keep the energy consistent and stay on them.”
The starters credited the bench with jump-starting the Huskies in the first half. UW finished with 22 points off the bench to Colorado’s 10. Carter had 14 points and three steals, while Green had eight points on 2-of-5 shooting from the 3-point line.
Sophomore Jamal Bey didn’t score. but he was a solid defensive presence when the Huskies needed one in the first half. He played five minutes, finishing with one rebound and one assist.
“That’s a team,” Thybulle said. “And that’s how we’re going to beat people, that’s how we’re going to go far, is by team. These guys did it. They shared, they cared, and they played for each other. And that’s what it’s all about, and that’s why we won today.”
UW will now turn its attention to the championship game where it will face No. 6 seed Oregon. UW and Ducks split their games this season. Oregon won the most recent match-up, topping the Huskies 55-47 at Alaska Airlines Arena on senior night last week.
At this point in the season, Crisp said, scouting will only take the Huskies so far. The championship will come down to something else.
“Toughness, togetherness, heart. All of those things,” he said. “Everybody knows what everybody does. It just comes down to who wants it more, who’s going to be the team that’s more together, who’s going to dive on those 50-50 balls, who’s going to make those effort plays that win games.”