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Huskies hold off Fresno State 62-57

Washington Huskies pull away in the 2nd half in a Defensive Struggle with Fresno State.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 11 Women’s UC Davis at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Washington Huskies came down to Anaheim, California to face the Fresno State Bulldogs in the John Wooden Legacy Tournament. Both teams coming off losses and struggling to score points this season. The Huskies would pull away in the 2nd half for a 62 to 57 victory and Washington Moves to a 4-1 record. Not the game the legendary Coach John Wooden would envision but Washington was able to survive and move on to the Championship game on Thanksgiving Day vs. either St. Mary’s or Vanderbilt.

If you like a defensive battle with tough contested attempts, blocked shots, charges and turnovers, this was the game for you. If you were looking for an offensive flow with a high amount of team assists, the first half especially was not for you. This should not have come at a big surprise as Fresno State came into the game averaging only 9 assists per game (#351 in the country) and the Washington Huskies came into the game at 10 assists per game (#341 in the country). Not quite the perfect matchup to celebrate the great John Wooden but there was tough defense played by both teams throughout.

Early on, 10 assists looked like climbing Mount Everest for the Huskies after finishing with 0 assists in the 1st half. The Huskies didn’t do themselves any favors early by missing their first 6 shots and finally got on the scoreboard with 15:08 in the 1st half off of a very difficult fadeaway from PJ Fuller to get within a score of 8-2 early on. Fuller was able to steal the ball a few seconds later and drew a foul in transition.

Fresno got off to a cold start as well but found success in 3 consecutive possessions that included a banked three-pointer from ex-Arizona player Jemarl Baker to take an early lead. The Huskies played zone primarily and did force a lot of turnovers in the first half but also gave up several dunks on easy dump offs. The zone was a double edged sword early on, forcing turnovers but also giving up easy baskets.

Fortunately for the Huskies, Fresno was called for two technical fouls after a little too much celebration after a couple of dunks but the Huskies could only hit 2/4 from the line.

Keion Brooks led the Huskies in scoring in the first half with 8 points but still looked a bit uncomfortable on the floor with his new teammates and forced several shots going 2-10 shooting in the 1st half. On one possession, Brooks had Kepnang for an easy feed as Kepnang was sealing his defender but Brooks did not see him and forced a long range mid-range miss.

The Huskies had several situations like this where making the extra pass could have helped find a better shot but instead settled for long contested jumpers. The Huskies would finish the 1st half with 0 team assists with a lot of 1 on 1 play by Brooks and freshman Keyon Menifield. Menifield was able to get a few of his signature buckets but also forced a few too many difficult shots. Menifield did have a quick 5-0 run himself that included a transition three-pointer.

Cole Bajema and Jamal Bey got off to slow starts as well. Bajema finally got his first bucket late in the half but made it harder than it should have been. Bajema passed up an open 3 off a good pass from Brooks but instead drove and made a very difficult shot. The shot went in but another example of UW missing out on easy assists and were fortunate to make the basket.

Assists and turnovers would be the story of the first half as Fresno finished with 7 assists and UW with 0 that led to a 28-27 Fresno State lead at halftime. The Huskies forcing 12 turnovers helped Washington stay in the game early on but could only score 5 points off those turnovers. However, the turnovers kept Fresno from getting good looks as they shot 47.8% in the first half. Without those turnovers, Fresno is most likely looking at a much bigger lead.

The Huskies use their defense and timely baskets to pull away

The Huskies would come out strong with a few hustle plays to force Fresno State call a timeout with 18:33 left. Braxton Meah would grab an offensive board for an easy put back. Shortly after, Keion Brooks would force a steal that led to a transition 3 that was missed by Bajema but Jamal Bey was able to steal it right after for an easy dunk to take a 31-28 UW lead.

Braxton Meah, the former Fresno State Bulldog, seemed to find his groove early in the 2nd half. Meah’s best sequence was a nice block that led to a transition attempt for Cole Bajema that was missed but the 7 footer Meah was able to run the floor and follow up the miss with a put back dunk.

The first assist of the game for the Huskies finally came at the 15:41 mark in the 2nd half off of a nice backscreen fade to the corner for Cole Bajema from PJ Fuller to give UW their largest lead of the game at 36-30. A few minutes later, Cole Bajema hits another 3 off of pass from Jamal Bey for the Huskies 2nd assist of the game to take a 41 to 32 UW lead.

A freshman for the Huskies would make a big impact in the 2nd half but not the freshman you might think. Koren Johnson made some big energy plays in the 2nd half to help UW get out to their biggest lead of 12. Koren Johnson found Franck Kepnang with a nice dish for an easy dunk and then bounced a fancy pass back to Keion Brooks for a transition dunk shortly after plus the and 1 free throw.

Johnson went out of the game at the 10:13 mark with the Huskies up 12 but that lead quickly evaporated to 6 in a few minutes as UW’s offense went back to their stagnant ways. Koren Johnson was brought back in with 5:55 left and immediately scored a fast break layup and later found Franck Kepnang for the play of the night with a monster Poster Dunk. Johnson would have modest numbers of 4 points (2/2 shooting), 2 assists and a steal but his impact handling the ball and creating some energy on defense made a big difference for the Huskies in the 2nd half.

The Huskies would need to hang on to the lead in the final few minutes and needed free throws from PJ Fuller and Jamal Bey to help close the game out.

Story of the game was defense and missed shots in this one. Fresno State didn’t come into the game as a good shooting team and continued their poor shooting with 6-26 from 3 (23.1%). The Huskies would also force 21 turnovers with 6 blocks and 10 steals overall. However, the most impressive defensive stat would be the 8 drawn charges and 3 by Franck Kepnang and PJ Fuller a piece. Not sure if that was a focus of emphasis in practice or not but came in handy tonight for the Dawgs.

The Huskies only shot 33% overall in the 1st half with 0 assists but were able to shoot 42% and finish with 6 assists in the 2nd half. Still a poor overall assist total but the 6 assists helped lead the Huskies to pulling away in the 2nd half.

Keion Brooks led the way with 16 points on only 4-15 shooting but did have 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals. Brooks also shot 7/7 from the foul line. No other Husky would finish in double digits but Franck Kepnang, Jamal Bey and Cole Bajema would all finish with 8 points. However Jamal Bey really struggled with 1/8 shooting from 3 and had several wide open looks that would have increased the UW assist total.

The Huskies survive and move to 4-1 on the season and potentially face a much bigger challenge with the winner of the St. Mary’s and Vanderbilt game to be played tonight. The Huskies will have to shoot much better to leave Anaheim with another victory. The Huskies play again tomorrow on Thanksgiving day (Time TBD).