The Washington Huskies eluded retribution on the first leg of their Los Angeles rematch tour. The finale figures to offer a more imposing challenge.
They beat UCLA in Seattle on Jan. 1, and they beat the Bruins again Thursday night, 86-84, despite blowing a 19-point lead and falling behind late in the second half. The victory clinched their first sweep of UCLA since the 2010-11 season.
And it set up another big game here Saturday afternoon.
That’s when Washington visits the Galen Center for a noon tipoff against the USC Trojans, whom the Huskies also defeated in Seattle in early January — an 87-85 victory that required a 22-point second-half comeback.
The Huskies (14-6, 6-2 in Pac-12) are tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12 standings as the conference schedule nears its halfway point, a surprising position for a team that features six freshmen in its eight-man rotation and was picked in the preseason to finish in 11th place.
And it’s probably most remarkable that they’re 3-1 on the road, victors now against Washington State, Arizona State and UCLA, the lone blemish a 99-67 pasting at Arizona on Jan. 14.
Beating the Trojans, then, would be another step toward changing the complexion of what has already been an unexpectedly successful season. If the Huskies return home with a 7-2 conference record before games next week against ASU and Arizona, an NCAA tournament bid would become that much more attainable.
UW coach Lorenzo Romar, speaking after Friday’s practice, said the Huskies have improved at a pace faster than what he expected. And he emphasized again the importance of UW finding ways to win games — close games, especially — before they actually started to “get it.”
“I always thought because of the learning curve with so many new players, that around this time is when we would start to get it,” Romar said. “I didn’t know what our record would be, but I think we’re probably further along. We got further along quicker than I had anticipated.”
But the Trojans (16-5, 5-3) are pretty good. And they were pretty good when the Huskies beat them Jan. 3. And the Huskies almost certainly would not have beaten them if star USC guard Julian Jacobs hadn’t left the game early in the second half with a sprained ankle. It was his departure, after he scored 15 points in 18 minutes, that spurred UW’s furious comeback.
Jacobs, a 6-foot-4 junior who averages 12.4 points and 5.9 assists per game, is healthy now. USC is 12-0 at home this season. So the Huskies should know what they’re up against: a high-leaping, fast-paced team that shoots 38.9 percent from 3-point range and has six players who average between 10.8 and 12.6 points per game.
“They were athletic and quick and had so many guys that could score and make plays, so we definitely remember that,” Romar said. “So we know in spite of us coming back, this is going to be a serious challenge for us. But on the flip side, as I look at our game from (earlier this year), I think there’s a marked difference. … I think we’re a better team than we were on that opening weekend.”
As for USC: “If they improved from the time we played them,” Romar said, “they might win a national championship. I just think they were already good when we played them. We weren’t there.”
Are they there yet? The Trojans should provide an accurate barometer.
Noah Dickerson, a freshman forward, injured his left foot below the ankle during Thursday’s win at UCLA. He led UW in scoring with 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Romar said Dickerson sat out of Friday’s practice, but he expects that he will be able to play at USC. … UW’s win against UCLA improved the Huskies’ RPI rating to 53rd, up from 72nd. Seven Pac-12 teams are ranked 51st or better. … Romar said he thinks the Huskies’ constant foul trouble is hindering their defensive aggressiveness in the second half of games, which might be why Pac-12 opponents shoot 49.8 percent from the field against them after halftime. “I think that may take the edge off a little bit,” Romar said, adding that he’s also trying to give players more rest in the first half to avoid fatigue.
Washington (14-6, 6-2 Pac-12) at USC (16-5, 5-3)
Noon, Galen Center, Los Angeles
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
All-time series: Washington leads, 71-70.
Statistics for 2015-16:
5 Katin Reinhardt, G (6-6, jr.): 12.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg
12 Julian Jacobs, G (6-4, jr.): 12.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 5.1 rpg
11 Jordan McLaughlin, G (6-1, so.): 12.4 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.5 rpg
25 Bennie Boatwright, F (6-10, fr.): 12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg
32 Nikola Jovanovic, F (6-11, jr.): 11.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg
12 Andrew Andrews, G (6-2, sr.): 21.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 4.9 apg
5 Dejounte Murray, G (6-4.5, fr.): 14.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.6 apg
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, fr.): 6.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, fr.): 8.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg
0 Marquese Chriss, F (6-9, fr.): 11.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg
Scouting report: USC was picked to finish 10th in the league standings this season, but the Trojans are vastly improved and are obviously well on their way to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. … After losing consecutive road games to Oregon and Oregon State last week, USC responded with an 81-71 victory against Washington State on Thursday night at Galen Center, where the Trojans are still unbeaten (12-0) this season. … Six USC players average double-figures (all five starters and reserve guard Elijah Stewart, who is essentially a sixth starter), and none average more than 12.6 points per game, so this is probably the most balanced offensive attack in the Pac-12. Beyond those six, though, they still have some offensive weapons, like freshman forward Chimezie Metu, who averages 7.2 points and 17.9 minutes per game, but scored 21 points earlier this season against UCLA and had 12 on Thursday against WSU. … According to KenPom.com, USC ranks 23rd nationally in shortest possession time (15.4 seconds), and the Huskies rank second (13.5 seconds), so this game should be played at a pretty frantic pace. … USC ranks seventh in the Pac-12 with a 46.0 field-goal percentage, and holds opponents to 40.2 percent shooting, second-best in the conference. The Trojans are also the second-best 3-point shooting team in the league at 38.9 percent. … The first time these teams played this season, the Huskies trailed by 22 points with 14 minutes remaining before coming back to win 87-85. Dejounte Murray led UW with 29 points, and Andrew Andrews had 24, including the game-winning putback in the final seconds.