University of Washington

‘We won’t let that happen again.’ Amid offensive struggles, Huskies aim to prevent defensive breakdowns

Mike Hopkins previews Utah State

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins previews Friday's NCAA Tournament first-round game against Utah State. It's the Huskies first tournament appearance since 2011.
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Washington head coach Mike Hopkins previews Friday's NCAA Tournament first-round game against Utah State. It's the Huskies first tournament appearance since 2011.

Something happened against Oregon that Washington head coach Mike Hopkins hadn’t seen in a while.

As the Huskies struggled to score in the second half — they went 6-for-27 from the field and 3-for-12 from the 3-point line — their defense dropped off, too. The Ducks shot a blistering 64.7 percent from the field after halftime as they outscored UW 40-22.

Hopkins didn’t ignore the Huskies’ offensive troubles while addressing the media on Tuesday. They’ve been inconsistent, he said, and have been for several weeks. But there have been signs offensive success, and he pointed to UW’s 13 3-pointers against USC in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals as evidence.

“We just got to share it and move the ball,” he said. “The more the ball moves, the better shots we’re going to get, the better rhythm we’re going to have.”

But even as the ninth-seeded Huskies are putting up extra shots in preparation for Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 8 seed Utah State, Hopkins and his coaching staff are preaching defense.

Over the last seven games, the Huskies have shot 42.5 percent from the field while allowing opponents to shoot 44.9 percent.

“No matter how well the offense is rolling, the thing that is going to make us different in this tournament or any tournament and has made us different all year is our defense,” Hopkins said.

“And if you stay focused on that and don’t let missing shots affect that, we can be in every game. Now, make shots and do that? Now we can beat anybody. But you got to focus on something and defense is going to be our main focus.”

True to Hopkins’ point, one of UW’s best offensive games came against Cal. The Huskies shot 49.1 percent from the field, but fell on the road by allowing the Golden Bears to shoot 55.6 percent. And while UW shot just 39.6 percent in its Pac-12 championship semifinal win over Colorado, the Huskies won by holding the Buffaloes to 32.1 percent.

When UW was playing its best — back during a 13-1 start to conference play — it was firing on all cylinders. The Huskies were shooting 47.7 percent from the field while limiting opponents to 42.5 percent.

Hopkins said fatigue has played a role in the recent offensive struggles, so he’s thankful the Huskies will open tournament play on Friday.

“The length of the season, those types of things, when your legs go, your decision-making goes, the shooting goes,” he said. “Getting the extra day is a great thing for us. We’ve had some injuries, guys are banged up. We just got to get in the gym, make some shots and we have that ability. We’ve proven it.”

The team from early in Pac-12 play is the one Hopkins would most like to see take the floor against the Aggies. But if it’s not, senior point guard David Crisp said UW learned a valuable lesson in the conference championship game loss to Oregon: The defense has to be there no matter what.

“I definitely feel like it was one of the few times this season our offense kind of affected how we played defense. … That never happens,” Crisp said. “That won’t happen again. We won’t let that happen again.”

The key is poise, Crisp said. When Oregon started to pull away in the second half, the Huskies lost theirs.

“We hang our hats on playing defense,” Crisp said. “When we do that, we know the rest will come to us. (Oregon was) one of the few times we lost our poise.

“It wasn’t really coming from a selfish point but more like a, man, we got to get this thing going. So one guy’s like, ‘I got to get this play right here.’ You’re trying to make the home run play every time and it’s base hits, it’s singles every time. It usually adds up. We didn’t take that approach that game.”

Hopkins hopes that lesson will take hold, especially as the Huskies prepare to face another team with the ability to lock them down offensively. Utah State is holding opponents to 39.3 percent shooting, which ranks 11th in the country.

When UW is locked in, its defense can be equally frustrating. The Huskies held Colorado to just six field goals on 20 percent shooting in the second half of their semifinal victory. They had a similar performance in a home win over Utah in February. The Utes shot 5-of-20 from the field in the second half and finished with just 14 field goals total.

“We had multiple (defensive) breakdowns,” Hopkins said of the loss to Oregon. “Like we told our team, we got three weeks left. Focus. Lock in. What we do is not complicated but what we have to do is we have to execute.

“I felt like on a couple of those plays we were supposed to be seeing the ball and we didn’t. … We haven’t been doing it at the level when we were doing it at a high rate.”

For years as an assistant coach at Syracuse, Hopkins watched Jim Boeheim’s zone defense baffle unfamiliar NCAA Tournament opponents. He knows what it — and the Huskies — are capable of. Now, he said, it’s just a matter of execution.

“Our defense historically, it’s a challenge for opposing teams because they’ve never seen it,” Hopkins said. “You can’t mimic it. I hope that’s the case on Friday. (Utah State) will be a heck of a challenge, I’ll tell you that.”