ANAHEIM, Calif. – This week has been a bit of a homecoming for Mike Hopkins.
The Washington men’s basketball coach grew up in nearby Laguna Hills, California, and starred at Mater Dei High, where he played on the team that won the 1987 California state championship.
Thirty-five years later, Hopkins returns to Orange County with the Huskies (4-1), who will play Saint Mary’s (6-0) at 9:30 p.m. Thursday in the Wooden Legacy championship game on ESPN2.
“I went to John Wooden’s basketball camp when I was 10 years old and I still have the picture with me and him,” Hopkins said. “A true legend. My father for years would just quote Coach Wooden, so to be able to be a part of this, not only a tournament in his name but a tournament that has so much weight nationally on ESPN, we’re honored to be a part of it.”
An emotional Hopkins got a little choked up talking about UW’s trip to Southern California, especially when the conversation turns to his family.
Hopkins, 53, visited with his 85-year-old father, Griff, who has battled early-onset dementia for years, on Tuesday morning. And his 80-year-old mother, Sue, and brother, John, were in the Anaheim Convention Center stands Wednesday night when Washington secured a 62-57 comeback win over Fresno State.
Following the game, Hopkins found his mom and wrapped her in a huge embrace.
“The last game she saw me coach was when we played UCLA our first year at UCLA (in 2017),” Hopkins said. “My dad couldn’t make it because he’s not capable of traveling, but I was glad to see her. Gave her a big hug and kiss after the game. I know the lateness of the day was a little hard for her. It was just special for my mom to see us win. It put things in perspective.”
In addition to Hopkins, Husky assistant Quincy Pondexter and junior center Braxton Meah, a pair of Fresno, California, natives have spent time with family and friends this week.
“Quincy is going to be celebrating Thanksgiving early (Thursday) with his family,” Hopkins said. “His whole family came down here. It’s awesome. They’ve come up to Seattle before, but to be able to have your family come and watch you is pretty cool.”
And Meah, who transferred from Fresno State, was instrumental in UW’s win against his former team.
“I loved it,” said Meah, who finished with a team-high seven rebounds and four points in 16 minutes. “I got to play against the people I’ve been playing with for the past couple of years. It was an amazing experience. I got to do it with my new family and that made it even better.”
The 7-foot-1 Meah helped create a stout defensive front that held Fresno State to 37.7% shooting and forced 21 turnovers.
“I told him I couldn’t imagine being in your position,” Hopkins said. “But he handled it like a champ. I thought he was the big difference at the start of the second half. I thought he established the interior. I wish we would have done a better job of establishing that earlier.”
Next up: Saint Mary’s star center Mitchell Saxen, the Seattle product who scored a game-high 19 points in the Gaels’ 75-65 win over Vanderbilt.
In their last meeting, Washington lost 85-81 to Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NIT in 2018.
“We know them a little bit, so there’s some familiarity there,” Hopkins said. “But more than anything it’s about us and how do we get better from one game to the next. We did some good things defensively (on Wednesday), now it’s about continuing that and making some strides on the offensive end.”
Washington hasn’t won a nonconference tournament since capturing the Wooden Legacy title in 2014. And the Huskies haven’t played on Thanksgiving since 2015.
“Playing for a tournament championship is pretty special,” Hopkins said. “It’s a great opportunity and we have to put ourselves in the best position to take advantage of it.”