By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The last thing the University of Washington men’s basketball team needed Saturday afternoon was added motivation.
The Huskies were already fired up after getting outrebounded in an exhibition win over St. Martin’s one week earlier, and they were trying to live up to their billing as the nation’s 17th-ranked team.
But after building up a 32-6 lead against overmatched McNeese State on Saturday, UW got another burr in the proverbial saddle when the Cowboys’ 6-foot-7, 215-pound P.J. Alawoya brought out the bark in 5-7 UW star Isaiah Thomas with a hard screen. Thomas jawed for a few seconds, and then let his game do the talking.
An inspired Thomas, who had taken only two shots over the first 10 1/2 minutes of the game, hit three consecutive 3-pointers before dishing out an assist to cap off a12-2 run over the next minute-and-a-half.
With that, UW had built up a 44-7 lead on its way to a somewhat hard-to-watch 118-64 victory in the season opener.
Afterward, the Huskies offered no apologies.
“It was the season opener, so we wanted to come out as hard as possible,” said Thomas, who finished with 17 points after hitting 6 of 8 shots and all four of his 3-point attempts. “We want to play as hard as you can for 40 minutes. I feel like we did a good job of that, and it showed.”
The most impressive thing about Saturday’s victory was that UW hardly needed Thomas at all. An inspired defense, an assault on the boards and an inferior opponent paved the way for the Huskies’ second-biggest margin of victory since the beginning of the 2007-08 season.
The Huskies forced 27 turnovers, outrebounded McNeese 69-32 and got a career-high 28 points and 13 rebounds from big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning en route to the blowout win. Three UW players — Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday (11 points, 12 rebounds) and sophomore 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye (15 and 13) — had double-doubles.
The only drama of the night came when McNeese scored the opening points on a 3 from the corner 15 seconds in. UW responded with a 17-1 run that swelled to 35-3 as the Cowboys quickly got run out of the building.
By halftime, the Huskies led 61-19 after forcing 18 first-half turnovers and holding McNeese to 6-of-26 shooting. During one stretch, the Cowboys turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions _ and that was before super-sub Venoy Overton came off the bench to force four more turnovers in a span of three minutes.
“Their guards were scared,” Thomas said. “You could just see it right when (Overton) came in. The dude dribbled it off his foot, then he backed up. (Overton) does that to some guards. That’s what you love him for.”
Even before Thomas got involved, the Huskies were getting plenty of offense. Scott Suggs came off the bench and hit 3-pointers on his first two shots, while Bryan-Amaning helped carry the offensive load with 13 first-half points.
N’Diaye had 15 rebounds in his first official game as a Husky, overcoming two quick fouls to dominate the boards against a much smaller team.
The Huskies shot 12 of 30 from 3-point range _ Thomas was 4 for 4, while redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox hit 3 of 4 in his first official game _ but were dominating so much inside that they didn’t need much help from beyond the paint.
UW’s three biggest players _ Bryan-Amaning, N’Daiye and 6-8 starter Darnell Gant _ combined for 48 points and 33 rebounds. By contrast, McNeese’s only three players taller than 6-7 had a combined two points and three rebounds.
McNeese’s Alawoya played just 15 minutes before fouling out early in the second half with two points and five rebounds.
“No matter who we played — tall, short, fat or thin — we were going to crash the boards (Saturday),” Bryan-Amaning said.
UW’s Gant returned from a groin injury and played 18 minutes after being inserted into the starting lineup.
Despite the one-sided score, the Huskies did show some obvious areas for improvement. UW was 20 of 42 from the free-throw line, with N’Diaye making just 3 of 15 attempts and Bryan-Amaning 6 of 12. Starter Justin Holiday got off to a slow start offensively, while Overton was 1 of 8 from the field in his first action since returning from a hamstring injury. And starting point guard Abdul Gaddy was benched for a long stretch in the second half because of defensive lapses.
But all in all, the performance left the Huskies feeling pretty good about the 2010-11 season.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot more talent than we did my first two years _ not to put anything against those teams,” Thomas said. “We’ve got guys who can run the floor, they can jump, they can shoot 3s. They don’t just do one thing. I think everybody does most things.
“Big ups to my teammates. I feel like we’re ready to play.”
Coach Lorenzo Romar said after the game that freshman Desmond Simmons will redshirt this season. Simmons has been dealing with a knee injury, and the return of Overton and Gant to the lineup made it difficult to find minutes for the freshman. … The starting lineup that included Gant over N’Diaye or swingman Scott Suggs isn’t necessarily a season-long thing. Romar said matchups with each opponent will dictate when UW goes big or small in its lineup this season.