The victory over Utah was everything head coach Mike Hopkins talked about during the non-conference portion of Washington’s schedule.
The brutal slate, which featured three road or neutral games against top-15 teams, was designed to prepare the Huskies to get through the Pac-12 Conference. They didn’t win any of those games, and they dropped a fourth to Minnesota, but if UW’s fast start to the conference season is any indication, the plan still worked.
There was perhaps no better indication than how well the Huskies responded to adversity during their 69-53 win over the Utes on Thursday night.
After going into the break with a 38-30 advantage, Noah Dickerson scored the first seven points of the second half to extend UW’s lead to 45-30. But then something happened that’s become commonplace for the Huskies this season.
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Utah went on a 12-2 run that trimmed UW’s advantage to five points. For most of this season, that would’ve meant a tight game the rest of the way as the Huskies desperately tried to hold off an opponent’s rally.
Not this time.
Instead, UW responded with a 12-0 run of its own that pushed the lead back to 59-42. Sophomore guard Nahziah Carter, who finished with a team-high 18 points, scored seven points during the spurt.
“We just did it,” Hopkins said. “Good teams with pride and a great coach, they’re going to come after you. So to be able to call a timeout and say, ‘Hey, they made their run. That’s good. That’s what they’re supposed to do.’”
He referenced last year’s victory over No. 2 Kansas when the Jayhawks cut UW’s lead to one point but the Huskies responded by going on a 16-4 run. Hopkins hoped that game — as well as the tough environments the Huskies faced at Gonzaga and Auburn earlier this season — helped prepare UW to pull out conference victories on the road.
So far, so good.
“We needed more poise in those situations where the environment doesn’t affect us,” Hopkins said. “We’ve hopefully trained them to have those experiences on the road in tough places. Just go play basketball.”
Hopkins preaches the importance of that poise, Carter said, and he believes the non-conference schedule helped them find it.
“Teams are going to go on a run because they’re a D-I team,” Carter said. “They have good players, D-I players. We just got to stay poised and do what we know. Focus on our defense while we’re in that and then go hit daggers … on the offensive end to keep the lead.”
Many of the problems that plagued UW during the non-conference season were absent during the conference-opening victories against Washington State and Utah.
The Huskies have avoided slow starts. They haven’t rushed or had a major drop in energy. The ball movement — evidenced by 33 assists and 19 turnovers in two games — has improved. That’s led to a balanced and more dynamic offense, one that doesn’t need Jaylen Nowell and Dickerson at their best in order to be effective.
UW is hoping to see more of the same against Colorado on Saturday.
“You’re trying to install your culture and you’re fighting for it everyday,” Hopkins said. “We’re just trying to make the extra pass. Believe in each other. It takes a team.”