SEATTLE — Washington head coach Mike Hopkins often speaks in metaphors and similes. He loves a good analogy. So it came as little surprise when he explained the Huskies’ uneven performance in their season-opening victory over then-No. 16 Baylor by comparing it to something else.
This time, he said it was like UW — a team replacing four starters, starting two five-star freshman and debuting its transfer point guard — was getting used to a new dance partner.
“You dance a lot, you get in a good rhythm with each other,” Hopkins said during a Monday press conference. “When you’re new, you can step on each other’s feet a little bit. We were stepping on each other’s feet a little bit at the beginning of the game. As it progressed, you’re learning about your team.”
If you go back and watch the first half of UW’s 67-64 victory, it’s easy to see what Hopkins was talking about. The Huskies were out of sorts, rushed, sloppy. They turned the ball over 15 times in the first half and then trailed 34-21 at halftime because of it. The Bears opened a 13-point lead in the second half and looked well on their way to a victory, maybe even a blowout.
If this was a dance, the Huskies were off-beat.
And when they walked into the locker room at halftime, the players knew it. Freshman Isaiah Stewart said the problem was clear: They just needed to settle down. Stewart spent his high school career playing against top-level competition, so the issue wasn’t nerves. For Stewart and many of his teammates, it was too much excitement.
“We were playing sped up a little bit,” Stewart said Monday. “Coach Hop came in and just agreed. He said the same thing: We have to relax and just take our time. Don’t be so sped up. Run our offense and do what we do.”
It was the first game for a young team and one against a nationally ranked opponent at that. Hopkins wasn’t quite sure how the Huskies were going to respond after falling behind by double figures. Last year, UW’s four seniors and sophomore leading scorer Jaylen Nowell so often stepped up in those pivotal moments. The eyes of the younger players looked to them for reassurance. Now, they had to learn to fight in a different way.
Stewart, often praised for his leadership ability even as a freshman, was one of the players who stepped up.
“I try to do what I can,” he said. “My favorite thing is telling them to throw out the playbook. Just be some Dawgs. Do what we do. … At the end of the day, we’re down by 13 and we’re all just focused on finding how we can win the game. At that point, you just block out what the coaches say. You go out there with your brothers and just try to win.”
And that’s exactly what the Huskies did. They turned the ball over just five times in the second half, and they outscored Baylor 21-5 over the final 8 minutes and 27 seconds. Junior guard Nahziah Carter hit the game-tying 3-pointer with freshman Jaden McDaniels getting credit for the assist. Stewart made the game-winner — a short, turnaround jumper in the paint.
“It says a lot about the team,” Hopkins. “I know it says a lot about our culture. I always say keep fighting. We were able to make plays. You got to make plays. You can’t just say, ‘OK, we’re going to fight.’ Guys are going to have to make plays. They’re going to have to adapt. They’re going to have to share the ball. We were able to do all of those things.”
If the game against Baylor was a dance, it was point guard Quade Greens’ first time taking the lead. Green, a former five-star recruit and transfer from Kentucky, was granted an eligibility waiver by the NCAA after the Huskies’ exhibition game against Western Washington. That made Friday’s game his UW debut.
Like the Huskies, Green took some time to find his rhythm. His shot never came around — he went 1-for-7 from the field — but he didn’t finish with nine assists.
“I felt like he was anxious at the beginning,” Hopkins said. “Normal things when you haven’t played in a year. We know how good he is. He’s just going to keep getting better and better the more that we dance together. We’re going to have more chemistry. He’s a great point guard. He can get open shots and he can make others around him better.”
Said Stewart: “He’s a very special point guard, a very special player to play with, as well. I love the way he passes the ball. … He moves it. When the ball is moving like that and sharing like that, we’re going to be a great team.”
Not only did Green get his first game experience running the Huskies’ offense, but UW left Anchorage with a victory and more than few teachable moments. Hopkins considers that a double win. Stewart does, too.
“We’re a very young team,” Stewart said, “but it shows how good we can be as long as we play with poise and take our time and don’t turn the ball over, we’ll be fine.”
The non-conference schedule won’t get much easier from here. After a home game against Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday, the Huskies will face Tennessee — a team receiving votes in the AP top 25 — in the Naismith Hall of Fame Classic in Toronto. Also looming? A match-up with No. 8 Gonzaga on Dec. 8.
For now, though, the now-No. 20 Huskies are 1-0 with what looks like a signature non-conference victory already secured. In the first 40 minutes of the regular season, they fell behind and clawed their way back. They struggled, and then they locked in defensively. They hit clutch shots down the stretch. They adjusted. They learned.
Not bad for a first dance.