It is only Mike Hopkins’ first few weeks of coaching basketball at the University of Washington, and already the players are earning celebrity comparisons.
For his long, active arms at the top of the Huskies’ zone defense, forward Matisse Thybulle is playfully being referred to by teammates as former NFL cornerback “Deion Sanders.”
And as the team’s official first-month closer of games, guard Jaylen Nowell is the reincarnation of former major-leaguer “Randy Johnson,” according to the first-year coach.
However UW is trying to get things to work — well, it is working, at least in the friendly confines of Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
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Nowell scored a team-high 21 points, including 11 in the final 6:08, and the Huskies held off UC Davis, 77-70, on Sunday night.
Of their four home wins so far this season, two have come against 2016-17 NCAA Tournament squads, including this dangerous-shooting Aggies’ team.
“These guys, they are fighting,” Hopkins said.
And UW changed the tenor of this game in the first 4 1/2 minutes of the second half with its defense.
Thybulle, the 6-foot-5 junior from Issaquah, had his hands on everything — literally — to spark a 10-1 run to open the half that gave the Huskies a 44-38 lead.
He blocked Michael Onyebaku’s shot in the first few seconds. Then he plucked two steals over the Aggies’ next three possessions.
All of it fed the UW offense, including Thybulle, who opened his team’s first trip of the half with a corner 3-pointer.
“That is a big part of what rattles the offense,” Thybulle said. “When I get deflections, it throws them off their kilter.”
Hopkins will certainly take Thybulle’s contributions Sunday — 11 points, five assists, three steals, three assists and three blocked shots — on a nightly basis.
“(Thybulle) just makes plays,” Hopkins said. “He can cover space. ... He changes the optic of trying to get the ball into the high post.”
Then Deion gave way to the Big Unit in the final minutes.
UC Davis grabbed its final lead, 59-58, on Siler Schneider’s floater with 6:48 remaining.
Thirty seconds later, Nowell got a steal, then went coast-to-coast for a lay-in, was fouled and finished off the three-point play for a 61-59 Huskies lead.
With the UW clinging to a 67-65 lead and less than two minutes to go, Nowell snuck into the lane and canned a 14-foot jump shot.
On the UW’s next trip, he did the same thing, hitting a 6-footer over Onyebalu with 25 seconds to go, and the Huskies led, 71-66.
“He wants the ball,” Hopkins said.
Noah Dickerson added 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies, and Clover Park High School product David Crisp chipped in 13 points in what Hopkins said was his best floor-general effort of the season.