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John Blanchette: Carlos Johnson and backseat strategy help Huskies find way to defeat Cougars

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 6, 2018, 6:31 p.m.

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. The Huskies rallied in the second half and won 70-65 in Hopkins’ first game in the series. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
Washington head coach Mike Hopkins directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. The Huskies rallied in the second half and won 70-65 in Hopkins’ first game in the series. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – It’s a lonesome road, that ribbon from Spokane to Pullman. Especially so in the 1 a.m. darkness, when you figured to be snug under the covers against the chill, visions of tipoff 12 hours away dancing in your head.

This was Mike Hopkins’ introduction to life in the Palouse precinct of the Pac-12 on Saturday.

A 5:30 p.m. flight from Seattle on Friday night that couldn’t land at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport because of fog and rerouted back to Seattle. His Washington basketball team split up on two Plan B planes from Seatac to Spokane, the last landing at 12:30. The after-midnight ride down U.S. 195, and check-in at 2:30 a.m.

“Things don’t happen to you,” the Huskies’ first-year head coach reasoned. “They happen for you.”

He was still basking in the Huskies’ 70-65 escape from Friel Court and the Washington State Cougars, and he had a story to share.

“We’re in travels, we’re all messed up,” he said. “We take out the computer, it was coach (Will) Conroy and I, and we’re in the back of the car. Watching the Washington State game of last year. Just watching. And Carlos Johnson – go look at his stats. He was unbelieveable.”

He was indeed – 17 points in his first start as a freshman at hostile old Friel. Rugged and tough-minded, as much a forward at 6-foot-3 as a guard, he all but carried the Huskies until Wazzu’s senior-heavy lineup imposed its will down the stretch in a 79-71 victory.

But for Hopkins, the old video was a revelation.

Particularly as he’d left Johnson on the bench the last three games. In fact, Johnson hadn’t played in the big UW upset of Kansas, either, so his floor time in the last month totaled just 25 minutes.

And Saturday afternoon?

“He won the game,” said Hopkins. “He flat out changed the game.”

This happened with about 7 1/2 minutes to play, the Cougars clinging to a modest lead and still doing a pretty fair job of dicing up the zone defense Hopkins brought with him to Montlake from his old job as Jim Boeheim’s assistant at Syracuse. With either Robert Franks or Drick Bernstine operating out of the high post, the Cougars had abandoned their normal 3s-with-wild-abandon attack for medium jumpers or drives and getting to the foul line. When Franks made two free throws coming out of a timeout, it was 57-50.

And then Hopkins – who had Johnson in the lineup because he liked the personnel mismatch – called the sophomore’s number.

Moments earlier, Johnson had bricked a dunk in transition – the ensuing Cougar runout sending Franks to the line.

“He drew it up,” Johnson said of his coach, “and I was like, ‘I ain’t going to miss this opportunity twice.’ ”

He froze the 6-7 Franks with a wicked crossover dribble and soared to the hoop and became, as Hopkins said, plucking an image from old “Emergency!” reruns, “a human defibrillator.”

“I think he dunked on me,” Hopkins laughed. “I felt it was like I was on the other side. You know what that does. It’s like a human ‘EEEEEE! Rampart! Rampart!’ It was just awesome. It changed the tide.”

So it did. Less than two minutes later, the Huskies were even. They would make six of their last eight field goal attempts, seven of eight from the line. On the other end, the Cougars would miss seven of 10 and turn the ball over four times.

It’s something WSU coach Ernie Kent has seen before – in losses to UTEP and Kansas State, and even last weekend at UCLA.

“We give up a 10-point lead and it’s like layup city at the basket,” he said. “We go zone, it’s still layups. The isolated our studs and drove them to the basket and it wasn’t like they were shooting jump shots – they were getting layups. You’re not going to beat anyone giving up 75 percent shooting in a half.”

Or turning the ball over 23 times. Or shooting seven of 27 from behind the arc, given how 3-dependent the Cougars are.

But mostly, Kent noted, the issue was that the Huskies “took the toughness away from us.”

He chalked that up to UW’s experience, but the truth is that stat is a wash – and it’s not as if the Huskies are experienced winners. They’re learning just like the Cougars are, just at a faster clip. Already UW has road wins in the Pac-12 at USC and WSU – as many conference wins as the Huskies had all of last year. The Cougs, meanwhile, have dropped seven of their last nine; Thanksgiving glory seems very far away.

But there’s a lot of season left. You can learn on the fly.

Or in the backseat of a car, rolling down U.S. 195.


Highlights

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