The defensive improvements Lorenzo Romar had promised finally materialized in the final minutes of Washington’s 85-66 victory against Idaho State.
The Huskies entered Saturday’s game allowing opponents to shoot 50.8 percent from the field, which ranked 342nd among the 351 Division I teams.
The UW coach maintained the Huskies were improving defensively, but you couldn’t tell during the first 30 minutes when the undersized and undermanned Big Sky opponent scored at will against the bigger Pac-12 team.
But everything changed in the final 10 minutes.
Bengals senior guard Andre Hatchett wiggled free inside for a dunk on an inbounds play with 9:51 left that cut UW’s lead to 70-60.
At that time the Bengals were shooting 52.2 percent from the field, but it turned out to be their last basket.
Washington forced Idaho State to miss its final eight shots while the Huskies closed the game with a 15-6 run.
The 19-point victory was the most lopsided win during a frustrating season in which nothing has come easy.
With 1:29 remaining, Perris Blackwell, C.J. Wilcox and Andrew Andrews checked out, and for the first time several UW starters enjoyed the final moments on the bench while reserves served mop-up duty.
Blackwell finished with a career-high 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting and seven rebounds while Wilcox drained five three-pointers for 19 points.
The Huskies (5-4) also received 17 points from Andrews, and Nigel Williams-Goss added 13.
“This team plays differently than any team we’d played, primarily because of its defense,” Romar said. “We haven’t faced that type of zone (a 1-1-3 attack) all year, but I think our guys did a really good job of attacking it.
“I thought we attacked it inside and outside. We penetrated and kicked. I thought our guys did a good job going up against it.”
Despite a sensational offensive performance in which Washington shot 55.2 percent from the field, made 10 of 21 three-pointers and connected on 11 of 13 free throws, the announced crowd of 7,256 at Alaska Airlines Arena couldn’t relax until the final minutes.
Washington led 70-65 with 7:04 left when the Huskies held Idaho State scoreless over the next six possessions and 5½ minutes. When Tomas Sanchez drained a free throw, UW extended its five-point lead to 15 (81-66) with 1:29 left.
That’s when many of the starters went to the bench and most of the fans headed to the exits.
Idaho State’s poor shooting in the final minutes may have been a result of the Bengals, who relied on six players who had at least 24 minutes, growing tired or UW’s defense wearing them down.
“I hope it’s because we clicked,” Andrews said. “We’ve been working a lot on defense. We had to focus down on getting stops.”
Washington held Idaho State to 37 percent shooting in the second half after the Bengals shot 56 percent in the first.
Sanchez, the former Shorewood High standout, and Jeffrey Solarin each scored 14 points for the Bengals (3-4).
Idaho State entered the game shooting 44.8 percent on three-pointers, but Washington held ISU to 2 of 13 (15.5 percent) from behind the arc.
The Huskies also had more rebounds (31-21), assists (19-14) and blocks (5-0).
“Today,” Romar said, “we attacked.”
Washington never trailed after taking the lead with 16:28 in the first half. The Huskies led 46-35 at halftime and took over defensively in the end for a satisfying win before Tuesday’s game at Tulane.
“Our personal goal, among just us, was to get Quinn Sterling and Connor Smith into the game,” Andrews said, referring to the UW reserves.
Every Husky in uniform played for the first time this season.