By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — There was a brief moment during the opening minutes of Wednesday night’s exhibition game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion when the upset bid appeared unlikely at best.
No, these upstart Washington Huskies weren’t going to possibly give the defending national champions from Bellingham a challenge.
That’s how it looked four minutes into Wednesday’s exhibition — not only did the rebuilding University of Washington men’s basketball team look overmatched, but the Huskies looked inferior to NCAA Division II champ Western Washington. The Vikings scored the first six points of the game, held an 8-4 lead and all the momentum, and the realization began to set in that one of these teams was an experienced unit with title aspirations…and the other was UW.
The new-look Huskies, with an overhauled offense and revised roles after underclassmen Tony Wroten Jr. and Terrence Ross left early for the NBA, had their hands full for most of the evening before finally restoring order and reminding everyone at Hec Ed that they, not WWU, are the most prestigious basketball program on this side of the state.
The Huskies eventually shook off WWU for an 88-78 win in an exhibition game that won’t count toward either team’s record.
Because the season hasn’t officially started, it could be said that a moral victory was on the line for the Division II team from the north, and Western certainly earned that much. The Vikings rallied back from a nine-point halftime deficit to tie the score three times in the second half. Paul Jones’s jumper from the wing tied the score for the final time, at 69 with 6:51 remaining, before UW took the lead for good.
The Huskies got a boost from redshirt freshman Andrew Andrews, who scored nine of his 14 points in the final 3:15 of the first half, but a leg cramp limited him for a long stretch in the second half. Junior C.J. Wilcox helped put the Vikings away down the stretch, with 13 of his game-high 21 points coming after halftime.
WWU senior John Allen, a Mountlake Terrace High School graduate, almost single-handedly got the Vikings back in the game by scoring nine points in the first four minutes of the second half, but his shot went cold down the stretch. Both Allen and teammate Rico Wilkins had open 3-point shots that could have given WWU the lead with less than nine minutes remaining, only to miss.
WWU came out of the gates looking like the more polished team, scoring six unanswered points while the Huskies adjusted to their new high-post offense and looked for scorers in the post-Wroten-and-Ross era. UW finally got things going when 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye posted up down low and dunked on an interior pass from Scott Suggs. The Huskies followed that with an 11-0 run to take a 15-8 lead and led by as many as 11 early in the second half before Allen got going.
WWU finally tied the score at 65-65 with 9:55 remaining in the game, when juco transfer Austin Bragg scored on a putback. The two teams traded baskets twice, then UW’s high-post paid off when an N’Diaye screen opened the door for Wilcox’s dagger-like 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 74-69 lead with 5:43 left.
Back-to-back fast-break dunks by Jernard Jarreau and Wilcox inside the final 90 seconds helped put the game away.
Afterward, UW assistant coach Brad Jackson got up off the Huskies’ bench and exchanged greetings with the Vikings players — most of whom he coached last season while leading the Vikings to the D-II title.
“I know these kids, and I like to see them do well,” said Jackson, who was hired as a UW assistant in August after spending 27 seasons leading the WWU program. “But I want us (the Huskies) to do well to; I wanted to win the game. It was an interesting and unique situation — one I probably won’t be in again.”
Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar was impressed by the Vikings, saying that the test was “really, really good” for UW as it prepares for the Nov. 11 opener against Loyola of Maryland.
The game turned out to be really good for both programs, even though the upstart Vikings were disappointed in the end.
“We wanted to win tonight,” WWU senior Chris Mitchell said after the game. “We were successful last year. After winning the championship last year, we’re coming in with a lot of confidence this year. We think that, if we play our best ball, there’s not anybody that can beat us.
“We played good tonight, but we can play a lot better.”