With his face contorted and grimacing, Lorenzo Romar stomped his feet on the sideline and noise echoed throughout the half-empty building.
The Washington men’s basketball coach hunched over, clapped his hands feverishly and pleaded for a defensive stop.
The Huskies didn’t listen in the first half of their 83-79 victory over Montana when they allowed the Grizzlies to shoot 71.4 percent from the field and score 42 points.
Romar admitted most the early gaffes were the result of players getting adjusted to a new defense he installed Sunday. The Huskies had two days to iron out the kinks before facing the Grizzlies.
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“For me I’ve been doing one way for five years,” fifth-year senior guard C.J. Wilcox said. “It’s more packed in and I find myself going out further than I was supposed to. We’re just trying to contain the drive. We’re giving up way too many open layups and we’re trying to pack it in more.”
The new NCAA defensive changes, which prohibits hand-checking, forced Romar to scrap UW’s trademark ball-hawking scheme and rely on a defensive set in which the Huskies pack the middle.
“Rather than go for steals – which we weren’t getting many of those anyway – we want to cut off driving lanes,” he said. “This was the first time we tried it. It’ll get better.”
It couldn’t get any worse at the start Tuesday night before an announced crowd of 6,062 at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Led by junior guard Jordan Gregory, who was 5 for 5 on three-pointers in the first half, Montana converted 15 of 21 field goals and was 9 for 15 behind the arc before the break. The Grizzlies led 42-36 at halftime.
“We kept telling our team as soon as we string together consecutive stops, we’ll have a chance to take the lead,” Romar said. “And that’s what we finally did.”
Once the Huskies (3-3) turned up the defensive pressure, they took control. Montana made just two three-pointers in the second half and shot 51.6 percent from the field.
Washington also dominated the rebounding battle 34-14, limiting the Griz to one offensive board.
“We had a couple of breakdowns in the first half, which really go them going,” said freshman guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who finished with 20 points and six assists. “In the second half we did a better job of sticking to our scout and eliminating our errors.”
Darin Johnson sank a free throw that gave Washington its first lead (54-53) with 13:02 left.
The lead seesawed on the next four possessions before Wilcox, who scored 28 points, put the Huskies up for good when he drained two three-pointers from the corner in front of the UW bench.
Montana (1-3) received 27 points from Gregory, 20 from Keron Deshields and 16 from Kareem Jamar.
The Grizzlies used a 14-6 run to cut UW’s lead to 80-79 with 11.2 seconds left. Chris Kemp had a chance to tie the game with a free throw, but his attempt rattled out. Washington collected the rebound.
After a shaky start in the season, which has included the loss of players to injury and transfer, the Huskies admit they’re still a work in progress.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Wilcox said. “I think we’ve handled it well. Obviously it would be a different story if we had some of our guys, but we’ve been sticking together knowing we have to play harder.
“This year, we’ve been learning on the fly.”
• Washington announced forward Shawn Kemp Jr. has been battling Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid. He began to develop symptoms in late July before being officially diagnosed in early September. Kemp is undergoing medical treatment and is not expected to miss games due to the illness.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @percyallen.