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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After sluggish start, UW men pull away behind Koren Johnson’s career-high to beat Bellarmine

Percy Allen Seattle Times

SEATTLE – They debuted a new man-to-man defense, tweaked the offense and played without injured point guard Sahvir Wheeler, which perhaps explains why the Huskies came out flat in the first half of Monday night’s regular season opener.

The Washington men’s basketball team had difficulty putting away visiting Bellarmine before Koren Johnson drained three three-pointers to spark a second-half spurt and secure a 91-57 nonconference victory at Alaska Airlines Arena.

Johnson, who got his first start in place of Wheeler, was magnificent while scoring a career-high 25 points on 10-for-14 shooting, including five three-pointers in 27 minutes.

However, there were several anxious moments for the Huskies.

Washington trailed 22-15 midway during a sloppy first half in which they committed 12 turnovers. The miscues undermined their stellar 52% shooting and a stingy defensive effort that held Bellarmine to 33.3% shooting.

At times UW’s worst enemy was its two All-Pac-12 returning starters Keion Brooks Jr. and Braxton Meah who each had three turnovers and combined for just four points and three rebounds before the break.

While Husky stars struggled early, junior center Franck Kepnang, who made his return after suffering a season-ending knee injury last December, Nate Calmese and Johnson combined for 23 points to carry Washington to a 35-27 halftime lead.

Johnson capped the first-half scoring with a three-pointer at the buzzer that proved to be a prelude of his second-half heroics.

After the break, Johnson poked the ball away from a Knights player to ignite a fast break that ended with his breakaway dunk. It was the first of many highlights for Johnson, who thrilled the crowd with back-to-back three-pointers.

Johnson’s 3s began a 14-0 Husky spurt that turned a 48-36 lead into a 59-36 advantage after another Johnson three-pointer.

Bellarmine never got closer than 21 points the rest of the way.

With new Husky AD Troy Dannen sitting courtside, Washington dominated the second half 56-30 and cruised to a convincing 34-point win.

The Huskies shot 61% from the floor, including 10 of 18 behind the arc. The Knights were 33% on field goals and converted 7 of 21 three-pointers.

Brooks shook off a ragged first half and finished with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting while Calmese added 13 points off the bench, including an emphatic two-hand dunk in the final seconds.

It’s unclear if Wheeler, who suffered an upper-body injury, will be available for Thursday’s 8 p.m. game against Northern Kentucky.

Washington also played without freshman guard Wesley Yates III due to an undisclosed injury.