The Huskies weren’t going to blow folks off the court with a high-scoring offense anymore.
Not after losing legendary Kelsey Plum, the most prolific scorer in women’s basketball history, in 2017 following three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Final Four.
So Washington had to change tactics and adopt a new strategy if it was going to compete in the Pac-12, which has three of the top four teams in the Associated Press rankings, and is perennially among the top conferences in the nation.
Third-year coach Jody Wynn understood this even if some impatient UW fans bemoaned growing pains during her first two seasons in which the Huskies compiled an 18-43 record and won just three Pac-12 games.
Wynn expanded the rotation and constantly tinkered with the lineups. She empowered everyone to shoot. And most of all, she made defense a priority.
And not just a run-of-the mill defense, but rather a trapping, pressing, harassing, in-your-face, full-frontal attack for 40 minutes. Ten UW players average at least 13.6 minutes, which gives Wynn the ammunition to comprise an unrelenting purple wave of tireless defenders.
“It’s the same kind of stuff that we’ve been doing,” Wynn said. “But now you have an entire team that’s bought in and understands that we have to defend if we want to win games and not just outscore opponents because we might not be able to do that.
“There’s more buy in. There’s more focus and there’s more attention on that side of the basketball with everybody.”
During Wynn’s first year, the Huskies ranked last in the Pac-12 while allowing an average of 76 points per game in 2017-18. The next season, they were slightly better and improved to 11th in the league while yielding 71.4 points.
This season, Washington is second in the conference in scoring defense while surrendering just 51.6 points per game.
“Defense is becoming our thing,” Wynn said. “It’s what we’ve always wanted. It’s taken a little longer to get here than we would have liked. … But it’s our identity.”
Several statistics suggest UW is becoming a defensive juggernaut.
The Huskies rank first in the Pac-12 and sixth nationally while forcing 24 turnovers. They’re also first in the conference and eighth in the country with 13.6 steals per game and opponents are shooting 32.3% against UW, which ranks 11th among Division I teams.
“It has to do with our chemistry,” said backup sophomore forward Haley Van Dyke, who leads the Pac-12 with 3.6 steals per game. “The more chemistry we have, the more in-sync we are on defense.
“We’re all starting to get it more and now we’re way more in-sync than we were last year.”
Granted it’s a relatively small sample size against handpicked opponents, but aside from a fourth-quarter meltdown against Tulane and a historically horrendous 22.6% field-goal shooting performance versus Hawaii, Washington (7-2) has been surprisingly dominant this season.
During their wins, the Huskies have outscored opponents by an average of 27 points, including lopsided victories of 53, 32 and 31 points.
And UW’s 19.4 scoring margin is reminiscent of Plum’s 2016-17 team that crushed teams by an average of 21 points.
But that’s where the comparisons end.
These Huskies rely on a balanced offensive attack in which six players have led the team in scoring and only senior guard Amber Melgoza (13.6 points per game) averages more than 10 points.
“We’re allowing people to shoot an open shot if they have it,” Wynn said. “Our team is unselfish. They move the ball really well. They’re looking for each other better this year. And that’s why we have had (six) different leading scorers.”
Admittedly, the Huskies have been in a shooting slump heading into the 25th Husky Classic, which starts 6 p.m. Friday against San Francisco (6-4) at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Washington concludes the two-day event, which includes UC Irvine, 4 p.m. Saturday versus Vanderbilt (7-3) before starting the Pac-12 season next week.
“I wouldn’t say we’re where we want to be because our shooting hasn’t been where we want it to be in the last two games,” Van Dyke said. “We’re in a little bit of a slump, but we’re going to get out of it because we know we can all shoot and we know we can all score.
“I feel that’s what this weekend is for, to get our confidence back up and get our shooting percentages back up. We can get better there.”
Here’s a look at Washington’s offense and defense the past three seasons.
- Vanderbilt plays UC Irvine at 8 p.m. Friday in the second game of double-header in the Husky Classic. UC Irvine faces San Francisco 2 p.m. Saturday before Washington’s game against Vanderbilt.
- Husky Classic fans can bring a new or gently used teddy bear to donate to the Salvation Army. Fans can also get their photo taken with “Harry-Claus” and make holiday-themed crafts.