TUCSON, Ariz. — With a 69-63 victory over Arizona on Saturday night, Washington won back-to-back games for the first time since December. The Huskies played one of the best halves of the season while building a halftime lead over Arizona, and they never trailed after a 6-4 deficit in the first three minutes of the game.
As UW prepares for the Pac-12 tournament, here are three takeaways from its fifth conference win.
1. It’s all coming together, but is it too late?
UW finally looked the part during the road sweep over Arizona State and Arizona. The Huskies overcame two double digit deficits against the Sun Devils on Thursday. On Saturday, they led by as many as 17 points and prevented a late Arizona comeback down the stretch.
“I felt like we were just playing, just playing basketball, playing free” said freshman Isaiah Stewart. “We all said to each other it’s just going to be a game of going up-and-down and like, that’s fun to us. We’re were just honestly having fun out there and staying together.”
The performance served as a reminder why UW was picked third in the Pac-12 and was once ranked in the top 25. The Huskies have seemed lost since point guard Quade Green was declared academically ineligible in January, but they found their way again in Arizona.
It’s too late for UW to save its regular season: The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 and will be the No. 12 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. But on Wednesday, they’ll face-off in a rematch with fifth-seeded Arizona in the first round. After winning back-to-back games for the first time since December, the Huskies look a dark horse to make a run.
“You get a chance at the end of the day,” said head coach Mike Hopkins. “It’s what makes March Madness what it is. Anything can happen. We just got to go to Vegas and play against a great program like this and hopefully we can come back and execute the game plan.”
2. Jaden McDaniels has flipped a switch.
Jaden McDaniels keeps outdoing himself. He had 16 points and six rebounds against the Sun Devils. He then looked like the best player on the floor against Arizona, finishing with 20 points, six rebounds, three blocks and a steal. McDaniels has reached double figures in seven of the Huskies’ eight games, averaging 15.4 points per game over that stretch. Before Arizona, McDaniels hadn’t scored 20 or more points since scoring 22 against Ball State on Dec. 22.
McDaniels has had his struggles this season, which came to a head when he played just 9 minutes in a loss to Colorado. But he’s hit his stride since moving from the starting lineup to the bench and has shown just how dynamic a weapon he can be for the Huskies.
Perhaps the biggest difference recently is his willingness to play within the offense. Where he used to push in traffic, McDaniels is now searching for his teammates. Not only has he helped the offense flow, but he’s also been rewarded with better looks for himself.
“He can do so many things,” Hopkins said. ‘His defense. Offensively, he’s a great passer. He can make others better. That’s what we’ve been just promoting with this team is on any given night, it can be someone else. That’s how championship teams are formed. You’re not forcing shots because you trust your teammates. Trust and respect your teammates. Less contested shots, more togetherness.”
3. Playing Arizona back-to-back will be a challenge.
While the Huskies have to feel confident heading into the Pac-12 tournament, playing the same team back-to-back — especially when that team one of the top teams in the conference — won’t be easy.
The Wildcats won the first meeting between the two teams 75-72 at Alaska Airlines Arena as UW lost a nine-point lead in the second half. The Huskies dominated the first half of the second game, but there were some concerning areas in the second that will need corrected before the rematch on Wednesday.
Most notable was Dylan Smith, who hit three straight three-pointers coming out of halftime and finished with 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc. UW was only out-rebounded 39-31, but Arizona had 14 offensive rebounds that translated into 12 second-chance points.
After holding the Wildcats to 20 percent shooting from the field and 12.5 shooting from three in the first half, the Huskies allowed them to shoot 46.9 percent from the field and 53.9 percent from three in the second. UW’s field goal percentage also dropped off after the break, falling from 48.5 percent to 36.4 percent.
“I thought our defense was the best I’ve seen in a long time by us,” Hopkins said. “We were taking away angles. We did a good job on (Nico) Mannion. In the first half, for sure. In the second half, kind of losing Smith was a problem.”