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December 29, 2013 at 11:55 PM

Washington wraps up non-conference season with uneven performance for a close win

University of Washington guard Andrew Andrews begins to tip the ball out of the hands of University of Hartford forward Mark Nwakamma in the first half. (Lindsey Wasson - Seattle Times)

University of Washington guard Andrew Andrews begins to tip the ball out of the hands of University of Hartford forward Mark Nwakamma in the first half. (Lindsey Wasson – Seattle Times)

Ready or not, Washington begins Pac-12 play Thursday at Arizona State.

While some may consider Sunday’s 73-67 win over Hartford – in which the Huskies trailed in the final three minutes – another reason for concern, coach Lorenzo Romar praised the team’s focus.

“Hartford took the lead, the game was back and forth,” he said. “We didn’t put our heads down. We stayed the course. If we can do that same thing when we go on the road and then make shots on top of it, I feel good about our team.”

Romar also commended the Huskies’ ball handling. They entered the game committing at least 10 turnovers in each of the previous six games, including 16 in their last outing. On Sunday, Washington had a season-low seven.

“Two things that had been bothering me and tonight I thought we got an A,” Romar said. “We maintained our focus for 40 minutes and we turned the ball over seven times, which is a season low. We had been turning the ball over too much after taking very good care of the basketball in the beginning of the year and we went back to taking care of it tonight so I would say we’re much further along now.”

The Huskies also did an amazing job at the free throw line where they were 26 of 30. Washington leads the Pac-12 with a 77.4 percent free-throw shooting percentage.

Still there were areas of concern.

For starters, the Huskies have to ask themselves how in the world did Hartford hang in the game for so long?

The Hawks (5-9) looked as if they would capture the upset and their biggest win of the season when they led 65-63 with 2:32 remaining.

From there, the Huskies outscored them 10-2. C.J. Wilcox buried a long jumper to tie the score 65-65. After Nate Sikma missed a shot, Nigel Williams-Goss collected the rebound. He dribbled quickly down the court, staggered off a screen and didn’t hesitate to release a mid-range jumper that put UW up for good.

Andrews, Wilcox and Desmond Simmons each hit a pair of free throws down the stretch to cap the scoring for the Huskies.

The Huskies are 3-0 in games decided by six points or less. Those wins came against seemingly overmatched opponents (Montana, Long Beach State and Hartford). And this doesn’t take into account UW has lost every game by seven or more points.

Still, the Huskies believe their narrow wins will help them during the Pac-12 season.

“It depends on the way you look at it,” Wilcox said. “We look at it as we played close games so if we end up in another one, we know how to handle ourselves.”

Even though Hartford scored just 67 points, Washington still has problems defensively. The Hawks converted 55.8 percent from the field, including 9 of 18 on three-pointers.

For the second straight year, Washington enters conference play at 8-5. In 2011-12 they rebounded from a sluggish start, won the regular-season conference crown with a 14-4 record and finished 24-11. Last season’s non-conference performances were a barometer of the league play as Washington tied for sixth in the Pac-12 at 9-9 and bottomed out at 18-16 overall.

“We still have room to grow,” Wilcox said. “Guys that haven’t been here are going to find out what it’s like playing in our conference, but I think we will have a really good learning curve. After a couple of league games, to see how we have to play, once we get that I think we will be better in playing to our potential.”

In each of its first four games, Washington faces teams with double-digit wins, including No. 1-ranked Arizona (13-0) and No. 21 Colorado (11-2). The others include: ASU (11-2) and Utah (11-1).


— Wilcox overcame a miserable first-half shooting performance (2 of 7 from the field, 1 of 4 on three-pointers) and scored 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half. He scored seven points in the final five minutes, which began with a weird exchange with Corban Wroe. The Hartford junior guard fouled Wilcox and began yelling at him in front of the UW bench. Officials gave Wroe a techncial foul. Wilcox made 3 of 4 free throws to put UW up 61-57. He drained a long jumper minutes later that tied the score 65-65 at the 2:03 mark. But his best play may have been in the final 20 seconds. Washington led 69-67. Romar called a timeout with 10 seconds left on the shot clock and diagrammed for Wilcox. He drove to the rim, drew a foul and made both free throws to push UW’s lead to four with 17 seconds left.

““That’s exactly what we wanted,” Romar said. “We wanted to isolate C.J. going to the basket. That’s what he did. Our guys did a good job of executing.”

— After his 3-for-12 shooting display, Andrews is shooting just 37.4 percent from the field. However, the Huskies need him driving to the rim and attacking the defense. The result Sunday resulted in misses or fouls. When Andrews was fouled, he made the Hawks pay dearly. He sank 11 of 13 free throws. Both are career highs. He’s shooting 78.1 percent at the line. Andrews also collected five rebounds and committed just one turnover in 37 minutes.

— Romar called Mike Anderson UW’s unsung hero. The 6-5 junior guard didn’t score a point, but he had a big impact on the game. He had six rebounds, including three on the offensive glass. He also had five assists. When Mark Nwakamma torched UW’s big men, Anderson helped slow down Hartford’s leading scorer who had 21 points.

— After committing at least three turnovers in the previous six games, Williams-Goss had just one Sunday. He took care of ball while dishing out five assists. He also had three rebounds and a steal in 34 minutes. Williams-Goss final bucket – the mid-range jumper in transition that put UW up for good – gave him 11 points.

— The Huskies were hoping to get Desmond Simmons 20 minutes of action Sunday, but he played 14. He had a rather quiet game until the final minute when he collected his only rebound with 11 seconds left. He also capped the scoring with free throws. Simmons was 7 for 8 at the line and 2 of 2 from the field. He had a season-high 11 points in his third game.

— At 6-6 and 235 pounds, Nwakamma was a tough matchup for Perris Blackwell. Hartford doesn’t have a traditional post player so Blackwell was forced to defend Nwakamma, who is relatively quick and skilled enough to blow past big men on the perimeter. Still, Blackwell did the little things that don’t show up in the statistics like setting a screen for Williams-Goss that gave him space to hit the last-minute jumper. Blackwell also made the most of his scoring opportunities – he was 3 for 3 from the field and 1 for 1 on free throws for seven points. Romar said the guards missed a few chances to deliver the ball inside. Blackwell raised a few eyebrows with a personal best four blocks. He also drew some oohs and ahhs when he flushed a two-hand dunk early in the second half. It Washington’s only dunk and the first in three games.

— Other than Simmons, the bench is somewhat unsettled. Jahmel Taylor made an early appearance with 13:16 left in the first quarter. He played seven minutes and had two points on 1-for-3 shooting, including two missed three-pointers.

Said Romar: “Jahmel is capable of making baskets. Tonight he made 1 of 3. He’s a shot maker. He’s a basket maker. He’s shown that in the games he’s been in before. On the defensive end, he was fine. He’s a good basketball player. It’s just been hard to play minutes and get everybody in.”

— Meanwhile, Darin Johnson played two scoreless minutes and Shawn Kemp Jr. also failed to score in eight minutes.

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