SEATTLE — Whether against Indiana or Boston College or Montana, the same problems persist for the University of Washington men’s basketball team.
But you can’t say coach Lorenzo Romar isn’t trying to fix it.
After a dismal defensive performance in Friday’s loss to BC in New York, Romar spent Monday’s practice implementing some tweaks to the way the Huskies play defense, then put them on display during Tuesday night’s game against the Montana Grizzlies.
The results: mixed. But victory ensued, an 83-79 triumph that was closer than UW would have liked against a Big Sky team at home.
Change will not come easy.
“We’re kind of learning on the fly right now,” said senior guard C.J. Wilcox.
That much was evident in the first half, when Montana made
9 of its 15 attempts from 3-point range, finishing the period with an absurd field-goal percentage of 71 and a 42-36 halftime lead.
Jordan Gregory, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, made five 3s in the first half and led the Grizzlies with 27 points when it was over.
Gregory’s open looks – and those of his teammates – were the result of scout errors, Romar said, missed assignments that allowed Montana to develop a rhythm early in the game.
His new defensive look is more compact than is typically seen from Romar teams, with less emphasis on pressuring ballhandlers and shooters, and far more emphasis on preventing dribble penetration and easy looks at the basket.
Romar said he felt his team became too tentative in response to the new hand-checking rules designed to increase scoring, and, so, he responded by adjusting their philosophy.
“We were having trouble, just because of the new rules, you don’t feel like you can get into them as much,” said sophomore guard Andrew Andrews. “When you do, you get a foul, so you want to back off. With these new adjustments that we made, it makes it easier to keep people in front instead of picking up fouls.”
So how did it look?
“If you looked at how they shot the ball, you’d say it wasn’t effective at all,” Romar said. “I’d say based on the number of layups we gave up tonight, it was the first time that teams didn’t score as much in the paint.
“We’d been giving up far too many layups in transition, not containing the basketball, offensive rebound put-backs. I thought we did a better job of not giving those up tonight. They shot the ball extremely well in the first half from 3, and that made a difference.”
It helped that UW got its own shooter going. Wilcox, quiet in the first half, scored 22 of his game-high 28 points in the second as the Huskies found ways to get him the ball with space to shoot.
Wilcox’s hot streak came in conjunction with the steady approach of freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who added 20 points, mostly by smartly picking the right times to take the ball to the rim.
The Huskies (3-3) are much better when they do that, and, in that regard, this was a sound offensive game for them. UW shot 51 percent from the field – 50 in the first half, 52.2 in the second – and demolished the smaller Grizzlies (1-3) on the glass, 34-14.
They limited Montana to 2-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc in the second half, and the Grizzlies shot (only) 51.6 percent from the field in that period.
But they made it interesting down the stretch, after the Huskies had pulled ahead 74-65 with five minutes to play – their largest lead of the game.
Brandon Gfeller’s steal and score cut UW’s lead to 80-77 with 55.3 seconds left, then, after a Wilcox miss, forward Chris Kemp scored and was fouled with 11.2 seconds to go.
He missed the potential tying free throw, Andrews rebounded and passed to Wilcox, and he was fouled with 8.5 seconds left. He made both free throws to push the Huskies’ lead to three points. UW chose to foul Keron DeShields intentionally with 3.5 seconds left, he missed the front-end of the one-and-one and UW rebounded to seal it.
After two losses in New York, Williams-Goss said the Huskies “kind of wanted to have a fresh start tonight.”
Defensively, that’s exactly what they got, even if room for improvement is still readily apparent.
UW 83, MONTANA 79
Player of the game: C.J. Wilcox only scored six points in the first half, but poured in 22 in the second — 7 of 13 from the field, 5 of 8 on 3-pointers and 9 of 10 from the free-throw line in all — to lead Washington’s second-half comeback.
It was over when: Perris Blackwell rebounded a missed Montana free-throw and was fouled with 1.8 seconds remaining, then made one of two free throws to provide the final four-point margin.
Stat of the game: As astounding as Montana’s 9-for-15, 60 percent 3-point shooting was , the more important statistic, in terms of how it affected the outcome, was the Huskies’ 34-14 rebounding advantage. They had nearly as many offensive rebounds (11) as the Grizzlies did total.
Quotable: “I’m close to betting someone a pack of Red Vines that nobody shoots 71 percent in a half (again). That was an impressive, impressive display of shooting.” — UW coach Lorenzo Romar, marveling at Montana’s first-half field goal percentage
What it means: The Huskies said after the game that they were playing for the first time with a new defensive approach, and it showed. Montana’s 3-point accuracy in the first half was a major concern, but give UW credit for withstanding that barrage, finding Wilcox and eventually pulling this one out. It’s not a season-changing win by any means, but it’s at least a step in the right direction after a bad, bad weekend in New York.
Next up: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Washington vs. Long Beach State, Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Pac-12 Networks, 950-AMchristian.firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple email@example.com