Sometimes defense boils down to trust. At least it did for Desmond Simmons (far right) and the Washington Huskies.
He said they struggled with trust at times this season. Players weren’t always sure if teammates would cover their mistakes, rotate to the right spot and follow their defensive principles. In Lorenzo Romar’s switching defense, if one person blows an assignment and fails to rotate, it looks as if Washington had never practiced defense.
But in their 68-63 Pac-12 opening win over Washington State, the Huskies never played better defensively this season.
They held the Cougars to 27.6 percent shooting (8 for 29) on field goals and 20 percent (2 of 10) on three-pointers in the first half. WSU finished 36.8 percent from the field and 25 percent (5 of 20) behind the arc.
Simmons spearheaded the defensive effort. The 6-7 forward put the clamps on Brock Motum (near right) who had four points in the first half and finished with 15 relatively harmless points. The only Motum basket of consequence was a three-pointer that put WSU ahead 51-50 and gave the Cougars their first lead.
Otherwise, Motum was a non-factor thanks to Simmons, who gave the credit to teammates.
“My teammates helped me out a lot,” he said. “Talking to me on defense and letting me know what screens were coming. Just letting me know where he’s cutting. When teammates are talking to you constantly and saying got your help here, it helps out a lot. On my end, just playing with intensity. Don’t let him catch the ball as much possible.”
Simmons played in front of Motum, which is a scary proposition because WSU guards could have thrown post-entry lob passes for layups or alley-opp dunks. However, lurking UW players kept a close watch on Motum and he had few open looks in the post.
“They let me get out and deny him and we never let him catch it,” Simmons said.
He said UW hadn’t always believed it could play like it did Saturday.
“Not in the beginning of the season when we weren’t clicking on defense,” Simmons said. “We were still struggling with rotation and talking on defense. … We got a lot better at communicating on defense and it showed today.”
Romar said he began seeing the Huskies play better defensively last week at Connecticut. The trend continued this week in practice and was on display in the first half.
If the Huskies play this type of defense, then C.J. Wilcox believes they can compete with anyone and win anywhere in the Pac-12.
“We can compete with anybody,” he said. “We can play on the road. … Coming here and getting this done means a lot.”
Washington (9-5, 1-0) travels the Bay Area next week and suddenly the trip doesn’t look as daunting. California (9-5, 1-1) has lost five of its last eight games and Stanford (9-6, 0-2) has lost three of its last five.
A couple of notes:
— The Huskies didn’t admit it, but I got to believe they surprised themselves tonight. Not sure they believed they could play so well in the first half when they led 9-0 and 23-6. Also not sure they were completely convinced they could rally in the final minutes and make enough plays to win like they did in a hostile environment.
— Ahead by three points in the final seconds, Romar instructed the Huskies to intentionally foul and not give WSU a chance at a game-tying three-pointer. In past years, Romar would have opted to play solid and not foul.
— Romar shortened the rotation to seven players because he wasn’t sure if redshirt freshman Jernard Jarreau was ready to contend with Motum.
— It wouldn’t be a Pac-12 game unless the refs made a blunder that nearly played a role in the outcome. Washington led 66-63 when Abdul Gaddy went to the line with 8.8 seconds left. It was the eighth team foul on UW making it a 1-and-1 situation. However, the refs thought Gaddy was going to shoot two free throws and instructed the players that he had two foul shots. Gaddy missed the first shot and the ball bounced on the floor before the refs figured out their mistake. They awarded the ball to WSU, which had possession on the arrow. The Cougars never scored so essentially no harm, no foul. (No pun intended)
MORE NOTES, QUOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
— It’s not often someone who finishes with four points, five rebounds and two assists is the star of the night. But then, it’s not often somebody plays defense the way Simmons did. He was so good, Romar chose to use a zone defense whenever Simmons was out of the game.
“When Desmond was out of the game, we didn’t feel we had Plan B to defend Brock Motum,” Romar said.
Not sure if there’s a greater complement than that.
Maybe Wilcox put it best when he said: “We wouldn’t have won without (Simmons),” Wilcox said. “He came out there and did a great job on Motum.”
Simmons also appears to be getting more comfortable at the high post on the offensive end. He had two assists including a nice bounce pass to Wilcox in the post for a two-hand dunk in traffic.
— Speaking of Wilcox, he bounced back from five-point performance last week and finished with a game-high 18. He converted 6 of 14 shots, including 3 of 7 three-pointers. He also had seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal to offset five turnovers in 33 minutes. He got tired at the end. He had plenty of hops in the first half when he flushed a two-hand jam. But with 10:06 left, he didn’t have enough lift alley-oop slam and fell hard on the court.
— It may surprise you, but Aziz N’Diaye has been one of Washington’s most consistent offensive contributors this season. He’s scored in double figures in 11 of 14 games. Only Wilcox has more double-digit games. It used to be the 7-foot center would score on putback and hustle plays. Not any more. The Huskies are looking for him in the post. They’re clearing out and throwing him the ball. They’re OK when he makes mistakes and he had three turnovers, while trying to get to the basket. Still don’t understand why he tries to convert with his left hand when he’s so much more efficient with the right. He committed at least two turnovers going left.
Still N’Diaye converted 7 of 9 shots for 14 points, which is one shy of his career best. He controlled the glass and finished with 10 rebounds for his sixth double double this season. He also held WSU 6-10 forward D.J. Shelton to 2 points on 1-for-5 shooting.
— Scott Suggs didn’t do much in the first 37 minutes. However, he scored six of his 11 points in the final three and took over when it mattered most. At a time when ever other UW player appeared gassed, he used the dribble and created just enough space to drain two long jumpers despite tight defense. Then he converted a fast-break layup that gave UW a 61-64 lead with 1:02 left.
In the first half, Suggs had five points on 2-for-4 shooting in 16 minutes. He only had one rebound and didn’t have a single assist, block or steal in 30 minutes. He also had four fouls. Still, Suggs may have been the only Husky capable of draining those big shots at the end.
“He took the ball and took over,” Romar said. “You need guys that are going to score in spite of them taking you out of your stuff and that’s what he did down the stretch.”
— Knowing WSU was going to foul, the Huskies made sure to get the ball to Andrew Andrews, which seems like a big responsibility for a redshirt freshman reserve guard. However, he converted four free throws in the final 23 seconds to secure the win. Andrews finished with eight points, three assists, two rebounds and two steals to offset three turnovers in 25 minutes. It looks as if he’s fully recovered from an ankle injury that forced him to miss three games.
Said Romar: “He’s tough. He’s not intimidated by circumstances. He’s scrappy. He’s gritty. He’s one of the guys on our team that brings toughness.”
— Unspectacular game for Gaddy, who had nine points on 3-for-7 shooting, five assists, four rebounds and three turnovers in 33 minutes. He drilled a long three-pointer at the top of the key in the second half, but was more effective as a playmaker. He created easy shots for Simmons and N’Diaye. Gaddy was aggressive offensively early and had a hand on every basket as UW built a 9-0 lead. He’s at his best when he’s probing and attacking the defense. Gaddy gets into trouble when he tries to fit passes into tight spaces, but otherwise he was solid running the offense. He also gets some credit for holding WSU guard Royce Wooldridge to three points on 1-for-7 shooting.
Interesting to note that after Gaddy missed a potential game-clinching free throw with 8.8 seconds left, Andrews replaced him in the lineup and made two at the line with three seconds left to secure the victory.
— Shawn Kemp Jr.’s major contributions came in the way of two highlight dunks that were reminiscent of his high-flying father. The dunks overshadowed an embarrassing blown layup that somehow sailed over the rim. Kemp provided relief for N’Diaye and Simmons, but he failed to collect a rebound in 19 minutes. He finished with four points.