The Washington men’s basketball team will soon discover if its string of shaky nonconference performances has truly prepared it for a rigorous 10-week grind through the Pac-12 that begins Thursday.
For the second straight year, Washington enters conference play at 8-5 after Sunday night’s 73-67 win over Hartford in front of an announced crowd of 6,617 at Alaska Airlines Arena.
It’s the third consecutive year the Huskies have had five losses before the league opener.
In 2011-12, they rebounded from a sluggish start, won the regular-season conference crown with a 14-4 record and finished 24-11.
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Last season’s nonconference performances were a barometer of league play as Washington tied for sixth in the Pac-12 at 9-9 and bottomed out at 18-16 overall.
The Huskies finished in the National Invitation Tournament the past two years.
Washington is hoping to return to the NCAA tournament, but during the first two months of the season the team has been plagued by injuries, departures, inconsistent play, shoddy defense and turnovers.
Five days before conference opener, the Huskies were able to clean up two areas of concern.
“Two things that had been bothering me, tonight I thought we got an ‘A,’ ” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We maintained our focus for 40 minutes and we turned the ball over (only) seven times.”
The Huskies entered the game having committed at least 10 turnovers in each of the previous six games.
“You may look at the score and see it was a six-point win at home against a team that wasn’t nationally ranked and high profile and say we were just OK,” Romar said. “I would say I was really proud of our guys because … I thought our guys stayed pretty much focused the entire game. That’s what we’ve been looking for.”
When asked if Sunday’s outing was the kind of performance he’d envisioned, Romar said: “In terms of our focus, it was pretty close to what we want to see. If we have this same focus and go on the road … I feel good about our team.”
The Huskies kept their poise in a seesaw game in which the score was tied 11 times, the lead changed 18 times and neither team led by more than six points.
Washington had difficulty deciphering Hartford’s tricky 2-3 zone. The Huskies were unable to contain Nate Sikma on the perimeter as the former Bellevue High standout scored 16 points.
Mark Nwakamma led the Hawks (5-9) with 21 points as they punished the Huskies inside while scoring 30 points in the paint.
Hartford sank 9 of 18 three-pointers and shot 55.8 percent from the field.
Still, Washington managed to outpace Hartford thanks to C.J. Wilcox, who scored 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half.
Andrew Andrews had 19 and Nigel Williams-Goss and Desmond Simmons each added 11.
Trailing 65-63 with 2:32 left, the Huskies outscored the Hawks 10-2 the rest of the way. Wilcox tied the score with a long jumper and Williams-Goss put UW up for good 67-65 with a midrange jumper in transition.
Washington closed out the game going 6 of 6 on free throws. The Huskies were 26 of 30 at the line.
The Huskies believe their narrow wins — they’re 3-0 in games decided by six points or less — 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.”
• Wilcox (1,559) moved past James Edwards (1,548) into eighth place on Washington’s all-time scoring list.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.