SEATTLE — Gathered during a timeout in the second half of Sunday night’s game against Eastern Washington, the Washington Huskies were reminded of just how different college basketball games are going to be this season.
Whistles, fouls, free throws. Aggressive teams will be rewarded. And the Huskies, who in the second half employed a four-guard lineup, wanted a piece.
So they dribbled toward the rim, again and again and again, intent on either scoring easily against the foul-troubled Eagles or earning enough trips to the free-throw line to overcome the inconvenient first-half deficit they’d accumulated.
Eventually, the Huskies showed as the better team, beating their Big Sky foe 92-80 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, avoiding the embarrassment that would have accompanied back-to-back home losses to mid-majors after Thursday’s loss here to UC-Irvine.
They did it Sunday with, for the most part, a diminutive lineup, playing guards Nigel Williams-Goss, Andrew Andrews, C.J. Wilcox and Darin Johnson alongside forward Perris Blackwell for much of the second half. Reserve guard Mike Anderson mixed in, too, before fouling out, and at times played alongside the other four guards to comprise a five-guard lineup.
The results were much more favorable in the second half, when the Huskies outscored EWU 53-32 after trailing by nine at halftime.
“I just liked the way we competed in the second half, and it obviously made a difference,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. “When we compete, it’s obvious, we’re a much better team.”
They were better than the Eagles (1-1), at least. Washington travels Tuesday to New York, where they’ll play on Thursday against a much tougher Indiana team, then the following day against either Connecticut or Boston College.
UW’s performance in those games needs to more closely mirror what it did in the second half here Sunday than in the first. EWU guard Tyler Harvey shook loose for a game-high 28 points against the Huskies, scoring 20 of those before halftime while connecting on 8-of-13 from 3-point range.
Going with a smaller lineup might have helped UW limit him to eight points in the second half. At times, the Huskies used five guards at once, which meant they knew they could switch every one of EWU’s ball-screen and wind up with a similar matchup on the ball-handler.
“We’re already at a disadvantage, so we can just switch everything, and I think that helps a lot,” said Williams-Goss, who led the Huskies with 22 points and five assists. “Even if we have four guards and one big in, we can still switch pretty much everything.”
So they did, and that improved defensive effort led to more transition opportunities, which led to a 16-3 run that turned a 70-63 deficit into a 79-73 lead with 6:09 to play.
The Huskies (2-1) mostly made up that difference from the free-throw line, where they made 31 of 34 attempts, and scored 20 of their first 36 points of the half.
That wasn’t by accident. Romar issued the directive during a timeout, reminding his team that new hand-checking rules will favor teams that take the ball at the defense.
“This is where it comes to our advantage,” Wilcox recalled Romar telling them. “Just attack them and get to the free-throw line.”
In between foul shots, Williams-Goss snuck in floaters and evaded waiting defenders with crafty step-around moves that indicated the freshman might be one of UW’s most valuable offensive weapons.
Harvey made a layup to trim UW’s lead to 81-79 with 4:33 to go, but a bucket by Wilcox (who scored 15 points) and consecutive baskets by Johnson (who scored 12) provided the Huskies with necessary separation.
Romar enjoyed his team’s re-dedication to defense and seeking the rim in the second half, after they spent the first period hoisting early jumpers — they made just one 3-pointer all game — and forgoing any semblance of structured offense.
Their effort improved.
“When we put forth the effort, we’ve done a decent job,” Romar said. “When we haven’t, we’ve looked putrid.
“It was good for us to come back in a situation. We’ve done this twice now, in the Seattle-U game, and this game. I know Eastern is a little different team than Indiana, which is our next opponent. But it’s something hopefully we can build off of, that effort.”