Washington silences critics who say they cannot win ugly games by bouncing Georgia from tournament

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Isaiah Thomas created space with his sweet footwork, stepped back and swished a jumper with less than seven minutes remaining in a rugged NCAA tournament victory. He couldn’t resist celebrating the move. He lifted his index finger over his lips, stared down some harassing Georgia fans and shouted two words he had waited all game to say.

“Shut up!”

It wasn’t graceful, but neither was this game. In a physical test of toughness, a competition that came with the subtlety of a whack across the forehead, Washington needed that kind of edge to stand up to Georgia. In doing so, the Huskies silenced what has become a false belief about them.

To the notion the Huskies can’t win ugly, lift your index fingers over your lips and repeat after Thomas.

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Shut up.

To the notion the Huskies are unwilling to grind: Shut up.

To the notion the Huskies have an Achilles’ heel called toughness: Shut up.

During a 68-65 win Friday night at Time Warner Cable Arena, the Huskies made an encouraging statement about their flexibility. They’re a versatile team. Right now, they’re just winning, period. Mud wrestling, steel-cage match, brass-knuckle street fight — however the opponent wants it — the Huskies have an answer. Washington has become a team capable of thriving in a variety of ways, including ugly.

For certain, the Huskies would rather play games that look like Eva Mendes. But when forced to travel through slush, they no longer appear squeamish. Quietly, the up-tempo Huskies have improved throughout the season in winning close, low-scoring, slower-paced games, but it took a victory on this stage to exemplify just how much growth.

Georgia played the style it wanted. Still, the Huskies won.

“Yes, it is frustrating,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox, who thought he had the ideal game plan.

Washington is back to playing with an underdog’s grit. The Huskies had to fall apart during the regular season for a second straight year to remember what they’re all about, but they’re playing with their trademark attacking identity and competing with purpose again.

This wasn’t Washington’s best game. Not even close. In the first half, the Huskies endured another one of their puzzling shooting slumps. In the second half, they built a 10-point lead, but they came within a last-second heave by Travis Leslie of blowing it all and being forced into overtime. Nevertheless, this Huskies performance had enough substance to overcome its unappealing style.

“I think we’re playing good basketball, and I think we’re playing it at the right time,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.

And, um, LoRo, any explanation for why this team only seems to find itself in March?

“One thing about this group is when its backs are against the wall, it usually excels,” Romar said. “That’s happened two years in a row. Our backs have been against the wall, and our guys have responded. And if I knew how to make sure we didn’t have our backs against the wall the entire time, then I could help a lot of other coaches, I’m sure.”

For the Huskies, the frustration of youth gives way to maturation in March. This game highlighted the misconception that the Huskies can’t grind through slow, low-scoring games. The Huskies entered this contest with a 7-3 record in their 10 slowest-paced games of the year. Interestingly, they’re also 7-3 in their 10 fastest-paced games. Slice the Huskies (24-10) any way you wish, and they’re a team that wins about 70 percent of its games.

They were labeled as a team that couldn’t win ugly way too early this season. The tag was attached during nonconference play. Since then, they have become a more versatile squad. They learned the hard way, through losing, but they learned.

“Our team kind of knows how it feels to be on the wrong end of those kinds of games,” forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning said. “It’s just a learning curve. We’ve been on both ends, and now guys are composed and understand what it takes to win.”

The biggest difference: Defense. The Huskies are much better at getting key stops. Defense spurred the Huskies during a 17-7 run after halftime that turned a tie game in their favor.

“I think we came out and played the way we know how,” said forward Justin Holiday, who defended Georgia forward Trey Thompkins for parts of the game despite giving up 60 pounds to the big man. “At some point this season, it finally hit us that we were able to win close games. That falls back on defense.”

If their greatest weakness has vanished, then this team still has quite an upside. How many squads can say that this late in the season?

To the thought that we’ll figure out these Huskies one day: Shut up.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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