BOISE, Idaho – If not for the first 3 minutes of Washington’s first-round NCAA Tournament game Thursday, we might be talking about the biggest upset in the tourney’s history.
Instead, the Huskies are focusing on second-round opponent Pacific and Montana is thinking about what could have been.
Washington made eight of its first nine shots to take a 14-point lead and held off several Montana rallies to defeat the Grizzlies 88-77 in front of 11,871 fans at Taco Bell Arena on the Boise State campus. It was the closest game a No. 1 seed played in an opening-round game since 1997.
The Huskies (28-5) advance to play Big West Conference regular-season champion Pacific (27-3) at 12:20 p.m. Saturday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16. Pacific defeated Pittsburgh 79-71 in Boise’s first game Thursday.
Montana’s season ends at 18-13.
“It was really difficult getting down 16-2,” Montana coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I asked the guys at the end of the game how many of them wanted to start the ball game over and have another chance. …I’d love to be able to rewind and go back in time and know what we know now and come out with a different first four minutes.”
The first few minutes went as most people would have expected, with the Huskies’ full-court pressure forcing Montana into turnovers, leading to easy points. Rather than try to control the tempo by slowing things down, Montana rushed shots, allowing Washington to get out on the break.
A Bobby Jones 3-pointer made it 9-0 and Jamaal Williams’ layin extended it to 13-0 before the Grizzlies finally scored on their 10th shot. Nate Robinson sank a 3-pointer for a 16-2 lead. From that point, Montana outscored Washington 75-72.
“We played exceptional basketball,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of the opening run. “But again, we were only as good as our defense. I thought our defensive intensity was outstanding in the beginning, which enabled us to get great looks at the basket.”
“We came out with a lot of intensity and we rotated some guys in there who kind of kept the intensity up a little bit,” Brandon Roy added. “But like Coach said, we kind of got cool down the stretch.”
Montana 6-foot-7 forward Kamarr Davis hurt the Huskies inside. The 255-pound Davis was 11-for-18 for 24 points (and 11 rebounds). He scored six points, including the last four, in a 15-6 run that closed the gap to 32-23 before Mike Jensen answered with a 3-pointer from the left corner. The Huskies ended the first half with an 8-0 spurt including a three-point play by Roy and a 3-pointer by Tre Simmons to lead 43-26.
“Coach told us they love to take quick shots,” Davis said. “We went out and contested shots and got rebounds. Then we pushed it back at them. We began to run our offense and that’s what got us back in the game.”
Both teams were hot offensively in the second half, with Montana shooting 61.8 percent and Washington shooting 61.5 percent. But the Huskies were sloppy with the ball and rushed their shots. Still, Washington responded to every run the Grizzlies made.
“Give our guys a lot of credit that when Montana would make runs at us, we would step up and make big plays,” Romar said. “That has been the trademark of our team all year. Different guys step up and make big plays.”
Montana opened the second half with a 9-2 run capped by a Kevin Criswell 3-pointer. Back-to-back buckets by Davis made it 52-43 but Roy scored five points and Simmons made a 3-pointer as part of a 9-0 run that got the lead back to 61-43.
The Grizzlies again closed the gap to 10 on a Virgil Matthews layin with eight minutes remaining. But with Washington holding on to a nine-point lead with six minutes to go, the Huskies went on a 9-2 run, with Jones scoring the final four, for an 81-65 lead. The Grizzlies never seriously threatened again.
“We knew that they weren’t just going to roll over,” Will Conroy said. “They’re here because they deserve to be here. We stopped playing hard and let them back in it and they got some momentum. But we got back to playing how we should be playing.”
While the win wasn’t impressive, Washington will take it, especially after losing in the first round of last season’s tournament.
“We’re glad to get the chance to keep playing,” Romar said. “This wasn’t our best game, but every game in this tournament is going to be tough. We can’t afford to let up like we did today. If we get a team down, we need to keep them down.”
Roy led Washington with 17 points and finished 6-for-10 from the field. Simmons had 15 points, Conroy scored 12, Jones had 11 points and eight rebounds and Williams had 10 points. Washington’s reserves outscored Montana’s 38-19 and the Huskies outscored the Grizzlies 15-2 from the free throw line.
“Good, bad, or indifferent, I thought our kids fought to the end,” Krystkowiak said. “I don’t think that there was anybody out there interested in moral victories and trying to make it tough.”
Notes: Robinson received medical treatment for a cut over his eye after the game but Romar said his star guard is fine. … The 77 points by Montana was the most by a No. 16 seed since 1994. … Washington is now 7-0 on games played on neutral courts.