SEATTLE – Robert Upshaw emerged from the Hec Edmundson Pavilion locker room on Sunday night in what is becoming standard postgame attire.
Sneakers. Kangol-style hat. Sweatshirt. And, too, the world’s longest pair of floral-pattern pants that look as if they might have been fashioned from your grandmother’s davenport.
A little different, for sure. But if the 7-foot center continues to anchor the No. 17-ranked Washington Huskies as he did during Sunday’s 81-77 victory over Eastern Washington, the rest of his teammates might start dressing the same.
UW coach Lorenzo Romar called this “a character win” for the Huskies, who trailed by 11 points at halftime against an Eagles team that respectable folks believe could challenge for the Big Sky championship.
And Upshaw is the biggest character of them all. He led UW with 21 points, nine rebounds, and six more blocked shots to bring his season total to 39 (the single-season school record is 67).
His tip-in with 1:42 to play gave the Huskies their first lead of the second half. And while the 6,184 in attendance groaned at his first-half futility from the free-throw line – he missed his first seven attempts – Upshaw pulled it together well enough to make four of his final six, and three of his final four in the game’s final 3:11.
Clutch 3-pointers by Nigel Williams-Goss and Darin Johnson in the final 1:14 were just as essential.
“I think the team we have this year, we’re a bunch of fighters,” Upshaw said. “We’re a bunch of competitive guys. We fight. We fought back in a lot of games this year. We fought back in this one, and we came out on top.”
EWU (8-2) will win plenty of games this year behind its stellar perimeter shooting, but the Eagles made only 10 of their 30 3-point attempts on Sunday and shot just 36.8 percent from the field.
Still, they led 42-31 at halftime thanks to 12 points apiece from bruising forward Venky Jois (he finished with 13) and Tyler Harvey (he wound up with a team-best 21), and too many defensive miscues by the Huskies.
They weren’t great at putting the ball through the net, either. Upshaw scored 10 points in the first half on dunks or short-range drop-ins against the shorter Eagles, but missed all six of his free-throw attempts – the only foul-shots UW attempted in the period.
That changed in the second half, when EWU was whistled for three fouls in the first 4:31, and the Huskies entered the bonus with 12:02 to play.
At that point, Romar told the Huskies: “Don’t take very many outside shots. If you’re going to take an outside shot, it’s off penetration and we shoot a rhythm 3. If not, get to the basket. Go inside. And I thought our guys did a marvelous job of that.”
So the march to the free-throw line began. Andrew Andrews was the biggest benefactor, making 12-of-13 – including 4-of-4 in the final 33.1 seconds – to finish with 18 points.
Despite Upshaw’s 5-for-14 effort, the Huskies made 24 of their 37 free-throw attempts, and 24-of-31 in the second half. That – coupled with a more focused defensive effort that limited EWU to just 31.6-percent shooting in the second half – allowed the Huskies to chip away at Eastern’s lead.
And despite abandoning the 3-point line for much of the night, the Huskies made two 3-pointers down the stretch that required considerable fortitude. After Drew Brandon missed a 3-pointer following Upshaw’s tip-in, Williams-Goss stepped into a long-range shot and buried it to give UW a 74-70 lead with 1:14 to play.
EWU answered with a pair of free throws. And 11 seconds later, after making just one field-goal all game, Johnson caught a pass in the left corner, let fly from behind the arc and splashed home one of the game’s biggest shots to put the Huskies ahead by five points with 49 seconds to play.
Andrews’ free throws iced it thereafter.
These were the kind of late-game heroics that used to define Romar’s better teams, but went missing the past two seasons.
“I think you saw last year that we lost a lot of close games, a lot of games that could have went either way that got away from us,” said Williams-Goss, who finished with 19 points, four rebounds and three assists. “This year, we’re trying to make all of them count, and not let any game slip.”
With four nonconference opponents remaining –16th-ranked Oklahoma is the only potentially imposing squad on that slate – the Huskies are still unbeaten. And they stayed that way on Sunday by doing things they usually didn’t last season.
“UTEP, Long Beach State, this one,” Romar said. “These are wins that when we play in our conference, we’ll be able to, again, draw from and gain confidence from.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME – Robert Upshaw played the best game of his young Huskies career, leading the team with 21 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots. His tip-in with 1:42 to play gave the Huskies their first lead of the second half, and though he made only 5-of-14 from the free-throw line, he did make four of his final six attempts during a crucial stretch late in the game.
IT WAS OVER WHEN – Eastern Washington missed a pair of desperation shots on its final possession after Andrew Andrews made a pair of free throws to put UW ahead by four points with 20.8 seconds left.
STAT OF THE GAME – The Huskies made 24 of their 31 free-throw attempts in the second half after missing all six of their foul shots – each of them by Upshaw – in the first.
QUOTABLE – “Just hold your follow-through. Make this basket. We need this one. We need all we can get.” – Upshaw on his self-talk during free-throw struggles
WHAT IT MEANS – Eastern Washington has been playing well, and looks like it could be a championship contender in the Big Sky Conference. So while this might not be a signature victory for the Huskies, it isn’t insignificant, either. UW can now reasonably expect to finish its nonconference schedule with a record no worse than 11-1 – and if the Huskies can beat Oklahoma on Dec. 20 in Las Vegas, they should enter Pac-12 play unbeaten.
UP NEXT – Grambling at Washington, Wednesday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple