TEMPE, Ariz. — They stumbled through a lackluster nonconference season, which fed a loud chorus of criticism from naysayers who predicted their demise.
However, the Huskies entered Thursday’s Pac-12 opener Arizona State intent on proving to their fans and to themselves that their defense, which ranked 341st in the nation in points allowed, was indeed improving as they had promised.
“We looked as the Pac-12 season as a fresh start,” Nigel Williams-Goss said.
Less than five minutes into their 76-65 surprising win in front of 5,788 at Wells Fargo Arena, the UW players began playing the type of frenetic, harassing and smothering defense that coach Lorenzo Romar had hoped to see.
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They jumped into passing lanes and contested shots. But most important, they smothered Arizona State’s star Jahii Carson, who had a miserable night despite scoring 15 points.
The sophomore point guard, who torched UW for 32 points last season, missed 7 of 12 shots, which epitomized ASU’s woeful 38.6 percent shooting from the field.
He also committed four turnovers and finished with just one assist.
“We just talked about with Jahii … let’s put our pride aside,” Romar said. “It’s not one on one with him. You’re going to lose that battle. You have to guard him as a team.”
The Huskies also attacked Carson offensively.
First they pounded the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder in the post with Williams-Goss, a 6-3, 185-pound freshman, and then with 6-2, 195-pound guard Andrew Andrews.
“That was part of the game plan,” said Williams-Goss, who finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists. “We know that he’s a smaller guard, and he’s a big key to their team.”
With Carson struggling, the Huskies could live with offensive contributions from ASU’s Shaquielle McKissic and Jordan Bachynski, who each had 13 points.
“We tried to help (Carson) as much as we can and they did a good job on a couple isolations,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “We eventually changed who he was guarding, but in the whole scope of things, those couple baskets may have been a small factor.”
While Williams-Goss and Andrews (14 points) attacked inside, C.J. Wilcox peppered the Sun Devils on the perimeter with four of UW’s five three-pointers en route to a game-high 17 points.
The Huskies also received 10 points apiece from Darin Johnson and Perris Blackwell, who added seven rebounds.
Wilcox even did some damage inside, slipping past McKissic, the former Kentridge High standout, for an alley-oop flush from Andrews that put Washington up 20-18 with 11:22 left in the first half.
Washington extended its lead to 17 points (40-23) at the break.
Early in the second half, Arizona State used a 9-0 run to cut its deficit to 10 points (44-34) with 16:27 remaining.
The Huskies scored the next three baskets, including two three-pointers. Wilcox capped the 8-0 spurt with a dagger behind the arc, and the Sun Devils never seriously threatened again.
Washington led by as many as 24 points when Romar began emptying the bench.
“I thought we had our best focus all (season),” Romar said.
Due to the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule, it’s the only meeting this season between the teams, and it was the Huskies’ eighth straight victory over the Sun Devils.
Washington also improved to 9-5 and 1-0 in the Pac-12, and the win ensured the Huskies of at least a split in their conference opening road trip before Saturday’s game at No. 1 Arizona.
“It just shows the progress that we’ve made over this nonconference season,” Wilcox said. “It just shows that we’re not as bad as people may say. We can hang with some of the better teams, and we’re going to do a good job this year.”