SEATTLE – The 25-ranked team in the nation came roaring back. Arizona State trailed Washington by 10 at the half, but took the lead for the first time with seven minutes to go.
It was on. At that point, the Sun Devils were telling the Huskies, “Gut check time. Show us what you’ve got.”
They did. UW was the better team down the stretch and came away with a hard-fought 68-64 victory Thursday night at the Alaska Airlines Arena, another big win for a team that has surprised everyone but themselves.
“It was a dogfight,’’ said junior guard David Crisp, who penetrated the defense and made back-to-back layups to put the Huskies up by four in the final two minutes. “We know we have to out-tough everybody and make the hustle plays. It’s about composure and poise. If we stick to our game plan, we’ll be fine.”
The Huskies won only nine games last season. Now they are 16-6 overall and 6-3 in Pac-12 play. An NCAA Tournament bid is a realistic option. Could anyone have seen this coming?
“Did I envision this? Yeah,’’ said first-year UW coach Mike Hopkins. “That’s why I came here.”
Even Hopkins admits he didn’t see it this soon. But he has a group of players that believe in themselves and live by Hop’s two-word philosophy: Tougher Together.
The toughest man Thursday night was 6-8 power forward Noah Dickerson. On his 21st birthday, Dickerson dominated the paint and finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds. He had a double-double at halftime.
“We trust each other to get the job done,” Dickerson said. “We train to close out games. That’s what we did tonight. We’re growing together.”
The Sun Devils (16-6) are one of the best offensive teams in the country, averaging 86 points per game, but the UW’s pesky 2-3 zone held ASU to a season low in points.
The key to making the zone work up top is guard Matisse Thybulle, a lanky 6-5 junior who seems to have four arms on the court. Thybulle had six steals Thursday, which gives him the school record of 70 steals in a season. And it’s only the beginning of February. A 100-plus steal season is possible.
So how does Thybulle rank among the best defensive players Hopkins has coached, including his 22 years as an assistant coach at Syracuse?
“He’s No. 1,’’ Hopkins said of Thybulle. “He impacts the game with his great [defensive] instincts as well as I’ve ever seen it. And he was sick tonight with the stomach [flu] thing. But he still played 34 minutes and made three 3’s, had six steals and two blocks. The guy’s a frigin machine.”
The Huskies have nine conference games remaining, starting with ninth-ranked Arizona (19-4) Saturday night at home. After starting the season 3-3, the Wildcats are 16-1 and have won their last seven games.
“Arizona is on a roll now and may be the best team in the country,’’ Hopkins said. “This is a chance for us to see where we are. It’s a great test for us.”
The Huskies have passed a lot of tests this season under Hopkins, well on his way to Pac-12 Coach of the Year. A team that was as low as it gets a year ago now believes it can play with the big boys on any given night.
“Confidence is important,’’ Hopkins said. “But our goal is to continue to get better and fight each day to be the best team we can be.’’