SEATTLE — Place him in front of a microphone and an excited Mike Hopkins always has some one-liner that quickly becomes the “Did you hear what he said?” moment.
Hopkins, after his team’s 79-77 win Thursday over Oregon State at Alaska Airlines Arena, was once again in front of a mic. Normally energetic, the Washington Huskies coach was subdued to start, but still delivered.
“Survive and advance,” Hopkins said before taking questions.
March is here and survival, from a college basketball perspective, is at a premium. Only 68 out of 351 Division I teams reach the NCAA Tournament. UW is attempting to be one of those.
How the Huskies (20-10, 10-7 Pac-12) broke through against the Beavers (14-15, 6-11) did more than give them a 20-win season for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. It could be the template for how UW builds momentum going into the Pac-12 Tournament next week and potentially smash its six-year streak of missing the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN, as of Friday afternoon, upgraded UW from being in the “next four out” to being in the “first four out” leading up to Selection Sunday.
“Twenty wins is a lot of wins. Playing competitive D-1 basketball is a hard thing to do,” said Huskies junior forward Noah Dickerson, who was sitting next to guard Matisse Thybulle. “I’ve never done it. (Matisse’s) has never done it. So, it’s pretty exciting. Just to come out here with my team and get a win just play well, play great defense, it feels really good.”
Here’s what UW did. It started when Hopkins ran everything through a rotation consisting of Nahziah Carter, Dominic Green, Jaylen Nowell and Thybulle.
Carter gives the Huskies athleticism on both ends of the floor. Green is among the team’s best communicators and that allows him to orchestrate in real time. Nowell, despite being a shooting guard, is comfortable as a primary ball-handler. Hopkins said earlier in the year he wanted the former Garfield star to run the offense and be a distributor.
Thybulle, who is third nationally with 3.0 steals per game, has always been a defensive-minded player. Under Hopkins, he is a leading candidate and borderline front-runner to be the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
When they were on the floor, they helped UW take an 11-point lead late in the first half. The quartet also provided the length needed to keep the Beavers from doing damage on the perimeter. OSU shot 47.7 percent from 3 in a 97-94 double-overtime win earlier in the season. UW kept OSU, which is converting 47.2 percent of its field goals, to less than 39 percent Thursday.
“We executed the game plan,” Thybulle said. “We figured out what they were trying to do and took it away. They really didn’t have an answer after that.”
Hopkins said recently the team struggled at times to find energy due in some part to their rotations being a work in progress.
The Carter-Green-Nowell-Thybulle combo is one solution. UW may have another in pairing Dickerson with freshman forward Hameir Wright.
Defending teams with size has been an issue for the Huskies throughout the year. Hopkins said they’ve had Wright get reps at center in practice and decided to use him against the Beavers.
Wright, who is 6-foot-9, is the second-tallest player on the roster behind 6-11 center Sam Timmins. He’s 50 pounds lighter than Timmins, but Wright’s length and quickness gives the Huskies flexibility inside.
“He saved the game, really,” Thybulle said of Wright. “He stepped up big time. When we’ve needed him all year, he’s stepped up.”
Dickerson joked Wright “grew a little chest” when he started getting physical inside with the Beavers’ front court.
“Hameir is such a matchup problem,” Dickerson said. “Because he’s a really good passer in the high post and the 3-point line. He can drive past people, hit layups, hit open shots. He’s a real problem and he’s really, really long so he can really help us on defense. He came in and really, really helped us on defense.”
Playing Dickerson and Wright, who scored five points and played 22 minutes, led to the Beavers going through a dry spell over the final five minutes. They were forced into two shot-clock violations and went more than three minutes without a field goal.
UW only used eight players against OSU. That’s normal for the Pac-12 and its possible the Huskies could keep an eight-man system going forward.
Rotations aside, there’s also a plan in case the Huskies get into foul trouble as they showed against the Beavers.
Washington picks up an average of 18.5 per game and that’s in the lower half of college basketball. Nowell, who leads the team with 16.2 points, picked up his fourth foul with 10 minutes remaining. Nowell, who has picked up more than three fouls in his past five games, would return to hit late key shots and finished with 12 points.
Hopkins countered by having Dickerson work inside and grab points. The 6-8 Dickerson scored a game-high 25 points. Dickerson scored 28 against the Beavers earlier in the year.
Nowell and Dickerson, who averages 15.3 points, lead UW in scoring but there is a balance. Point guard David Crisp, who averages 11. 4 points, scored 12 against the Beavers.
“As we’ve said before, it can be anybody’s night,” Dickerson said. “We have so many weapons on the team. It just happened to be my night one night. Next time, it could be David’s night. Matisse’s night. Sam’s night.”
Thybulle, who chips in at 11.0 points, also had a dozen while showing he could be another 3-point option.
Green is shooting a team-best 43.2 percent and has established himself as one of the best long distance plus catch-and-shoot hitmen in the Pac-12. As of late, Thybulle has grown more comfortable from outside.
He was 3-for-5 against OSU from the 3-point line. Thybulle, who is converting 36.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, is shooting 42.8 percent from the 3-point line over the past five games.
“Just being in rhythm and taking good shots,” Thybulle said. “Like Noah said earlier, he found me wide open and I think the biggest key for me is … there’s someone open. These last four games, it’s been me.”
Next up is rival Oregon to close out the regular season. In their last meeting, the Ducks (19-11, 9-8) came away with a 65-40 win and left the Huskies with their worst offensive performance of the year.
“The Oregon game, we couldn’t score … our numbers were good defensively. It’s gonna be the offensive end,” Hopkins said. “I think they had 47 deflections in the game. They played with a lot of energy … We’ve been watching film. We’ll be ready for them.”