For 32 minutes, Washington did everything it needed to do against Seattle University.
The Huskies led at halftime and then outscored Seattle 17-4 over the first 10 minutes of the second half en route to building a 20-point lead.
But then everything seemed to fall apart at once.
It was mental, seniors Matisse Thybulle and David Crisp said afterward. UW thought it had the game won so it stopped playing like it didn’t. Because of that, the Redhawks pulled within two points with just more than a minute remaining.
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The Huskies held on for the win, but that didn’t make the end of the game any less concerning — even more so because it’s not the first time UW has given up a substantial lead. It’s been a trend throughout the non-conference season.
“One of our culture pieces is finish,” head coach Mike Hopkins said Wednesday. “Start what you finish. Finish. And we just didn’t. We did a lot of really good things, but when you’re playing against teams you’ve got to respect games and you got to finish it.”
On Saturday, UW will face the third top-15 team on its non-conference schedule. Hopkins hesitated to call it a must-win game. Those games, he said, don’t really exist right now. The non-conference slate is there to strengthen a team before the conference schedule begins.
If that’s the case, what the Huskies could use as much as a statement victory is a complete-game performance. A game where they take a lead and hold onto it. A game where they don’t fall behind by double digits — like they did in an otherwise strong performance against Gonzaga — and come away with a victory.
Hopkins agreed with Thybulle and Crisp that the lapses this season have been mental.
That means the solution is, too.
“I do believe it’s your attitude and how you approach things,” Hopkins said. “It’s one of those things that I tell these guys all the time. There’s no shortcuts. It’s all about hard work. You’ve got to respect everybody and who you play. You’ve got to do things the right way all of the time not just some of the time.”
UW lost their two other matchups with top-15 opponents: then-No. 11 Auburn and then-No. 1 Gonzaga. But well the Huskies were severely outplayed during an 88-66 loss to the Tigers, the Bulldogs won on a last-second jump shot.
Every game against the nation’s top teams shows the Huskies something they haven’t seen before, Hopkins said.
The biggest lesson from the loss to Auburn, he said, was the difference between watching the Tigers’ on film and facing them in person. They were a little faster, a little bigger, a little bit more aggressive.
Knowing that, UW knew what to expect against a team like Gonzaga. And experiencing the atmosphere at Auburn made playing the Bulldogs on the road a little less daunting, too.
That was progress, Hopkins said. Now, he’s hoping the close call at Gonzaga will lead to a victory against the Hokies.
“We’ve challenged ourselves but challenge is good,” he said. “That’s how you grow. We’ve challenged ourselves by bending it, pushing it, pulling it. Trying to go out of your comfort zone. I really believe that these games are going to help us.”
Throughout the early part of the season, Hopkins has talked about the idea of the Huskies’ A-game. They needed it in order to win against Gonzaga, he said. And while they came close — good, he said, not great — they still haven’t found it yet.
That’s the key to earning a top-25 victory, he said. For UW, the formula is simple: Get back in transition, handle pressure, don’t turn the ball over. Don’t rush, particularly against teams like Auburn, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech.
And perhaps most importantly for the Huskies? No more mental lapses. Consistency, even if the game seems like it’s in hand. When their effort lessens, Crisp said after the victory over Seattle U, it’s difficult to flip the switch back on.
If UW is able to build a lead against the Hokies, that’s a risk it just can’t take.
“I know that executing the game plan is huge,” Hopkins said. “If you do that, we’ve proven that we can win. Auburn, we didn’t do a great job of that. Gonzaga, I thought we did a good job of it and we had an opportunity. When you’re on the road or your neutral, you’ve got to put yourself in a position to do it.”