The Washington men's basketball program completed a remarkable return to prominence by securing a share of the regular-season conference crown.
From a nine-win finish two years ago to a conference title, the Huskies climbed back to the top of the Pac-12 with one of the most remarkable renaissances in program history.
This season is pregnant with potential and no matter how it ends, these Huskies – and their four seniors – will be remembered as the team that returned Washington to prominence.
Bigger prizes may loom on the horizon, but Washington accomplished one of its preseason goals and clinched a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title Saturday night.
And yet, in keeping with their on-to-the-next-game persona, the Huskies treated Saturday’s 64-55 win against Colorado like any other contest.
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They didn’t cut down the nets, unveil commemorative championship T-shirts or partake in a postgame party to celebrate UW’s 23rd conference title and the fifth since the league adopted an 18-game schedule in 1978-79.
“Apparently, we accomplished a share of getting the Pac-12 championship, but that means nothing to us,” senior guard Matisse Thybulle said. “We want to win it all. We’re grateful for the opportunity that we have in front of us. We’re grateful for where we are, but we’re just looking at the next game.”
Still, the soldout crowd of 10,000 at Alaska Airlines Arena serenaded the Huskies with thunderous applause for much of the night as Washington (22-5, 13-1 Pac-12) extended its home record to 14-0.
“Anytime you win a title it’s great,” coach Mike Hopkins said this week. “Obviously, it’s what you’re striving for. I believe that if you’re doing the right stuff off the court all the time, then that’s the result. The score takes care of itself per se. Our guys have done a really good job of staying focused, having good practices, taking care of their bodies and for the most part executing game plans – other than a couple of times early in games.
“Championships, you play for it. There’s a lot of pride in that. We want to have and try to build a consistent championship-level program. Bottom line. If we’re able to do that, then that’s great for the guys. Great for the school and great for the alumni.”
It took just two years for the Huskies to perfect Hopkins’ stupefying zone defense and assemble the pieces of a puzzle for its first championship since 2012.
Saturday, this was a team trying to be what it used to be and reclaiming parts of its storied past when UW’s defense was feared and old Hec Edmundson Pavilion was an intimidating place for opponents.
All night the Huskies smothered the Buffaloes and forced 19 turnovers – a season high for CU – that led to 18 points.
Washington held Colorado to just four three-pointers and its fewest points of the season.
“There’s two reasons that we lost this game,” Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle said. “No. 1 we gave them 13 offensive boards, which we knew we couldn’t do, because Washington is not a good offensive rebounding team. … We’ve got to be tougher on the boards.
“And then the second thing is you can’t come into this building, especially when it’s loud and sold out like it was tonight, and turn the ball over 19 times. So, a combination of the offensive rebounds and the turnovers that put us in a hole.”
Washington, which led 35-27 at halftime, put the game away with a decisive 16-6 spurt to begin the second half.
During the run, Thybulle took center stage with a performance that should cement his bid for a second straight Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award and put him in the conversation for even greater honors.
At one point, the 6-foot-5 guard deflected a pass and outraced Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV to the loose ball for a steal and transition dunk that gave UW a 44-29 lead.
Minutes later, Thybulle stalked CU’s Daylen Kountz from behind and blocked his jumper in the paint to spark another fastbreak that ended with Thybulle’s layup and a 51-33 Washington lead with 15:07 left.
In the past, Hopkins has likened Thybulle to Deion Sanders and Spiderman.
This time, the NFL Hall of Famer and superhero character weren’t adequate comparisons for the UW coach.
“He went Carl Lewis on us today with that loose ball when he outran (Wright),” Hopkins said smiling. “And a little bit David Copperfield. I don’t know where he’s at. He goes invisible and then he’s behind you. You just don’t know where he’s at. He’s incredible. He’s got a gift. He does something better than anybody in the country.”
Despite being saddled with foul trouble that limited him to just 25 minutes and 48 seconds, Thybulle finished with 17 points, six steals and five blocks before fouling out with less than two minutes left.
“The one thing you can’t do with Matisse Thybulle, is you cannot simulate him in practice,” Boyle said. “You just can’t. We work against the zone in practice and we get great ball movement, you know, it looks really good, and then you get out here and it’s a little different animal that is in the Washington Huskies uniform then what we’ve got in practice.”
Hopkins added: “He had 11 takeaways in 25 minutes. That’s not even funny. You look at it and it’s game changing. It’s incredible.”
Jaylen Nowell added 12 points while David Crisp chipped in 10 on a night when UW’s offense wasn’t as explosive as it was in its first meeting against Buffaloes – a 77-70 win in Boulder, Colo. – but good enough to sweep the season series.
Washington led for more than 34 minutes, but the Buffaloes didn’t go away quietly. Colorado used a 9-0 run to cut UW’s lead to 59-50 with 7:09 left.
Both teams scored just five points the rest of the way.
The Huskies didn’t allow the Buffaloes to get any closer as Thybulle sank a jumper on the ensuing possession to push their lead back to double digits (61-50).
Colorado then endured nearly a six-minute scoring drought that included four turnovers in five possessions. Tyler Bey led the Buffaloes (16-11, 7-8) with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
With four regular-season games remaining, Washington has a four-game lead in the Pac-12 race and could clinch the outright title with a win Thursday at California.
“I always had a vision that we could definitely do this,” Hopkins said. “But I just didn’t have a timeline.”
— Sophomore forward Hameir Wright flew home to Albany, N.Y., due to a family emergency and missed Saturday’s game against Colorado. Senior guard Dominic Green replaced Wright in the lineup and made his fifth start of the season.