SEATTLE – Senior Mike Jensen gave away three inches and about a foot’s worth of wingspan to Matt Haryasz Thursday night.
It was Washington’s most dangerous matchup against Stanford: Jensen, inserted into the starting lineup just four games ago after recovering from shoulder surgery, against Haryasz, Stanford’s 6-foot-11 center who lit up Washington for 24 points and 10 rebounds in a 76-67 Cardinal victory Feb. 9.
At 6-8, Jensen yields size every night. He can take advantage of that offensively with his range, although he rarely had this season. Going in, Jensen averaged just 4.8 points a game and 38-percent shooting from the floor. His season high, nine points, came last weekend at Oregon State.
It is on defense, especially against those as rangy as Haryasz, where Jensen has an especially tough time. A natural power forward, Jensen has been asked to play out of position at center his entire career at Washington. Never has he publicly complained, although there have been times when he’s admitted that his confidence has lagged.
On Thursday – in Jensen’s next-to-last home game – all the criticism, all the post-surgical pain and all the frustration faded.
“He came out and played like a wild man,” team leader Brandon Roy said.
Most will remember Jensen’s night Thursday for his remarkable offensive outburst. He hit his first four shots, all from beyond 3-point range and five of seven in the first half for 15 points. He finished with a career-high 18 points, all on threes.
At times, Jensen could be seen leaping and skipping like an 8-year-old down the court after nailing yet another long-range salvo. Finally, he was having fun, the fun he’s deserved for five years.
“Any time you have a serious injury or surgery like I had, it takes a while to get your confidence back and to get back into the swing of playing Pac-10 basketball,” Jensen said. “Now, I’m back in the swing. I’ve had a couple good games. I’ve just got to keep it up.”
Fewer will remember the defensive job he did against Haryasz, a certain all-conference center who’s projected as a late first-round pick in the NBA draft.
Jensen fronted Haryasz, hoping to deny him the ball. He did so while picking up just two fouls, fortunately for the Huskies because next on Haryasz would have been freshman Jon Brockman, who played just 10 first-half minutes after picking up two fouls himself.
Haryasz finished with just 10 points, nearly nine below his average. Normally a superb offensive rebounder, Haryasz managed just two, thanks mainly to Jensen muscling him away from the boards.
“Defensively, he really worked hard to limit Matt Haryasz’s touches,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “The rest of the group did a very good job of having a presence so that Matt couldn’t go off on us like he has in the past.”
Don’t underestimate Jensen’s potential contributions as the regular season winds down and tournaments come up. Stanford adjusted its defense to stop him in the second half, which only opened the lane for Roy, who scored 16 of his 23 points after intermission.
“Mike stretches the defense out so much,” Roy said. “Late in the game, I started getting fouled a lot because I started penetrating the middle and guys didn’t know whether to help out or not because Mike had hit six or seven threes.”
It’s coming at exactly the right time for Washington. Just two weeks ago, the Huskies were on a three-game losing streak. Their confidence had taken a beating. Fans and the media questioned them. They questioned themselves. A berth in the NCAA Tournament was in doubt.
Since Romar inserted Jensen into the starting lineup, Washington has won five straight. Jamaal Williams, the former starter, now comes off the bench and assumes the role he filled so well last season – as supplier of the offensive spark.
Whatever else the Huskies are doing, it’s working. For Jensen, it’s a reward for five challenging years.
“I want all the seniors to just leave it all out on the floor these last few games and I think everyone is doing that,” Roy said. “I’m just extremely happy for Mike.”
Judging by his grin and childlike skipping Thursday night, Jensen is just as happy for himself.