By Christian Caple The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Even after playing 46 minutes of Washington’s double-overtime grinder against Long Beach State, C.J. Wilcox had the energy to jump in front of a difficult question.
About those defensive adjustments? Keeping guys from dribbling to the rim and making layups? How’s that going?
“It still needs some work,” the senior guard said, wearing a wry smile, because he knew that much was obvious.
Defensive progress again eluded the Huskies on Saturday, when 50 minutes were required to settle their 92-89 victory over the struggling 49ers at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
There were positives, of course, namely junior-college transfer Mike Anderson. The 6-foot-4 guard led the team with 19 points and 16 rebounds, didn’t commit a turnover in 45 minutes, and made the crucial offensive rebound of a missed Andrew Andrews free throw with 16 seconds remaining that helped UW expand its late lead.
The Huskies (4-3) could use more players like Anderson, particularly as it applies to defending ball-handlers and rotating properly on the defensive end. Those are things UW again failed to do well for much of the game, allowing LBSU to shoot 50 percent from the field — and that was after the 49ers clanged their way to a 3-for-14 effort in the overtimes.
After Montana blistered UW for nine first-half 3-pointers earlier this week, Long Beach State made 58.6 percent of its first-half field goals. And most of them were inside, as the 49ers scored 22 of their 37 first-half points — and 54 total — in the paint.
“In the first half, it was just guys beating us off the dribble, which we have been working on preventing and stopping,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. “In the second half, we just had a lot of blown assignments, early in the second half.”
Do his players understand the defensive changes — plugging driving lines, in particular — he implemented in practice this week?
“Understanding, pretty good. Applying, not very good,” Romar said. “I think any one of our guys could tell you what we’re attempting to do. We just have to get better at doing it.”
LBSU guard Mike Caffey and forward Dan Jennings teamed to teach UW that lesson the hard way. Caffey scored 28 points — though he needed 28 shots to do it — and Jennings made 10 of 17 from the field to finish with 22 points.
Most of Jennings’ damage was done in the second half, when UW’s already depleted frontcourt was thinned even further by foul trouble for forwards Perris Blackwell and Shawn Kemp Jr.
Blackwell scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds, but had to check his defensive aggression against Jennings while playing most of the second half with three and four fouls.
“I was fronting him at first, then I kind of got caught behind a couple times,” Blackwell said. “Coach let me play behind him, and it actually worked better.”
The 49ers (1-7) appeared poised for their second victory of the season after losses to superior Michigan, Arizona, Kansas State and VCU teams. They led 69-61 before Nigel Williams-Goss made a 3-pointer with 5:10 to go, then worked the baseline for a score that made it 69-66 with 4:09 remaining.
Anderson went to work shortly after, scoring two put-back baskets, absorbing fouls on each of them, then making the subsequent free-throws to bring UW within 76-75 with 1:56 to play.
Blackwell made a pair of foul shots to give UW a 77-76 lead with 58.9 seconds on the clock. Caffey answered with a layup with 13.8 seconds to go. Williams-Goss ripped the ball into the paint the other way, was fouled, split the free-throws to tie, and Wilcox blocked LBSU’s final shot attempt to force overtime.
It was the Huskies who seized control in the first overtime period, leading 85-80 — Anderson keyed a pair of transition buckets — before Caffey canned a 3-pointer and scored again with 3.9 seconds remaining to force a second overtime.
UW again took the lead, Andrews shooting a pair of free throws, the Huskies leading 90-89 with 16.6 seconds to go. He made the first and missed the second, but Anderson claimed the offensive board, was fouled and split a pair of free throws to put UW ahead by three points.
Caffey’s final 3-point attempt missed, and the Huskies held on for their most challenging victory of the season.
It hasn’t been an easy one. Desmond Simmons, the 6-foot-7 forward who had knee surgery just before the season started, will miss at least another four games. Romar is counting the days.
“You always hear the cliché, ‘you’ve got to take it one game at a time,’” Romar said. “With our team right now, that’s what we really have to do. We kind of have to do it with smoke and mirrors until we at least get Desmond back, until some other guys are more experienced, until as a group we kind of understand what we’re trying to do, conceptually.”