It had been 620 days since Washington men’s basketball fans gathered inside Alaska Airlines Arena to watch a regular-season game.
With the exception of a revamped roster, turns out not much has changed for the Huskies, which had hoped their seven newcomers would reverse the fortunes of a program that had one of the worst records in school history last season.
However, Washington struggled to score and had difficulty with its perimeter defense during a deflating 71-64 nonconference defeat against Northern Illinois in Tuesday night’s season opener that drained the optimism from what appeared to be a promising season.
The Huskies had a couple of positive stretches late in the first half and in the final minutes, but ultimately they couldn’t overcome a horrendous shooting performance.
Washington shot 26.7% from the field, including 3 of 18 on three-pointers. UW was also 21 of 36 on free throws.
“I felt the quality of shot was bad,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “We were able to get in the paint and we want to go to the foul line. They had 14 blocked shots. We were challenging big guys and not kicking it out. We kept trying to reinforce it to get the ball out and get some good-looking 3s, but we didn’t.”
In his Washington debut, senior guard Terrell Brown Jr., who played at Arizona last season finished with 22 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals and four blocks to offset two turnovers.
Brown was hardly efficient while connecting on 9 of 24 shots, but no other Husky was able to get going offensively.
Nate Roberts, who collected a career-high 19 rebounds, and Jamal Bey each tallied 10 points.
“It’s real early,” Roberts said. “We’re still getting used to playing against other teams and other teams scouting us. We got a lot of things we got to fix and get better at, but I think it’s all going to come around. We got a long season. We’re going to be good.”
It was the fifth straight loss for Washington (0-1), which had four consecutive defeats last season to finish 5-21.
For 30 minutes, the late-arriving crowd of 6,356 mostly moaned and groaned and twisted and squirmed in their seats as the Huskies fell behind by 16 points in the first half and couldn’t contain NIU senior guard Trenton Hankerson who finished with a career-high 28 points and six three-pointers.
“On the defense, we try to keep it to five 3s or less and they made 12,” Hopkins said while noting NIU was 12 of 23 from long range. “It’s one of our staples. I felt like we lost Hankerson, obviously.”
Washington led 12-11 early when everything fell apart offensively and lost control of the game while Northern Illinois went on a 14-1 run that included nine unanswered points.
Brown snapped UW’s field goal drought that spanned six minutes and 41 seconds with a driving layup that cut the deficit to 25-15 with 7:32 remaining in the first half.
On the ensuing possession, the Huskies switched to a man-to-man defense that forced a shot clock violation and momentarily stalled NIU’s momentum.
However at the other end, Washington had four straight trips that produced very little ball movement and quick, off-target shots that had Hopkins barking orders and jumping on the sideline in frustration.
Down 33-17, the Huskies had their best moments in the first half during a 10-0 run but UW’s momentum stalled when Northern Illinois ended the first half with buzzer-beating three-pointer to take a 36-27 lead into the break.
“This is on me,” Hopkins said. “That team played harder than us in the first part of the game. They played harder than us and that’s unacceptable. They played harder.
“There were loose balls and we didn’t get them. They got them. We got to do it from the get go. We got to be tougher. We weren’t tough enough at the beginning of the game. On our home court? That’s not acceptable.”
In the second half, Washington resorted to a full-court press that forced 13 of NIU’s 20 turnovers and sparked the Huskies’ dormant offense.
UW pulled to within 45-44 in the final 10 minutes and was down 51-49 with 6½ minutes left before surging ahead.
Roberts converted 1 of 2 free throws to put UW up 52-51 at the 5:26 mark.
However, UW’s lead was short lived and Northern Illinois regained control with a 15-2 run capped by Hankerson’s jumper to go up 66-54 with 1:48 left.
“It’s tough to lose at home and the first game, but it’s a long season,” Roberts said. “We can’t dwell on this game. Just got to learn and get better.”
Washington continues a four-game homestand to start the season with Thursday’s matchup against Northern Arizona.
— Four-star recruit Tyler Lindhardt, who starred at King’s High, is expected to sign with the Huskies on Friday. UW also received a verbal commitment from Michigan point guard Keyon Menifield Jr.