Freshman Jaylen Nowell scored nine of UW’s final 13 points in a thrilling 86-82 nonconference victory over Belmont on Friday
Mike Hopkins’ first game as coach of the Washington men’s basketball team might be remembered more as the night when Jaylen Nowell emerged as a budding star.
With the Huskies down 10 points in the second half to Belmont, the former Garfield High star took over in the final minutes and led the comeback with a scintillating scoring performance that drew comparisons to former UW star Markelle Fultz and Syracuse great Carmelo Anthony.
Nowell, who scored 27 of his game-high 32 in the second half, made the biggest baskets, including a layup that put Washington up for good in an 86-82 nonconference victory Friday night in front of 5,883 spectators at Alaska Airlines Arena.
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“I just came out focused on the win,” Nowell said. “Being down in the first half, I just came out like I’m going to have to wake up. Definitely play more defense and get more rebounds.”
Perhaps, but Nowell did his best work on the offensive end late in the game.
The Huskies trailed 72-63 when the 6-foot-4 guard scored 13 of the final 23 points for Washington.
Nowell drained a three-pointer at the top of the key to put the Huskies up 76-74 with 2:24 left.
Neither team led by more than four points the rest of the way and the lead changed hands four times until Nowell slithered past a defender for a layup that gave UW an 80-79 lead.
Nowell also canned a pair of free throws with 8.2 seconds remaining that put UW ahead by three points.
On the ensuing possession, David Crisp (16 points) intentionally fouled Austin Luke with 4.5 seconds left. The Bruins guard made the first free throw and purposely clanked the second one.
However, Matisse Thybulle (13 points and five steals) collected the rebound and drained a pair of free throws to secure the victory.
“They executed everything from fouling to rebounding to taking our direction and making the foul shots when it mattered,” said Hopkins. “I don’t know what to say other than it’s one of those memories and moments that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
No one will soon forget Nowell’s performance, which was the most prolific scoring debut for a UW freshman.
Last year, Fultz, the No. 1 choice in the NBA draft last summer, set the Huskies record with 30 points in a defeat against Yale.
Hopkins, who spent 22 years as Syracuse assistant, had never seen a debut as spectacular as Nowell.
“Carmelo Anthony had 27 against Memphis, but we lost,” Hopkins said. “So to have his type of a game … in his first game — at home — and do it? No. But he’s got special cloth. He’s a competitor. Some guys have been gifted at something and they just know how to do it.
“Just a special player. Sometimes the best coaching is stay out of the way. When you have a player like that, let him do his art.”
The Bruins found a few holes in UW’s 2-3 zone, which had Hopkins recollecting his former boss and mentor at Syracuse.
“Coach (Jim) Boeheim used to always tell me, he goes ‘Mike, sometimes when you’re in a zone don’t panic when they hit four or five threes,’ ” Hopkins said. “Just get better at your zone. It was a lesson that I took to heart.”
Washington (1-0) held Belmont (0-1) to 32.2 percent on three-pointers (10 of 31) while connecting on 53.8 field-goal attempts.
Sophomore Carlos Johnson (10 points) had a perfect night of shooting (3 of 3 on field goals and 4 of 4 on free throws), while Nowell connected on 12 of 18 shots.
“Jaylen Nowell is a special player,” Hopkins said. “I’ve been around a lot of great players. He’s got the eyes of a scorer. We’ve had guys like Dion Waiters at Syracuse. He’s got that.
“You can’t really explain it, he just does it. He gets the killer eyes.”