The 2023-2024 season is officially here for the Washington Huskies. The Huskies welcomed the former Division II Powerhouse, Bellarmine Knights to Alaska Airlines Arena and rudely welcomed the Knights with a 34 point victory 91-57. The Huskies start the season 1-0 and surpass their 2022 scoring average by 21 points in the opener on a scorching 62% shooting from the field.
Koren Johnson led the way with a career-high 25 points on 10/14 shooting and helped the Huskies break away from a pesky Bellarmine team in the 2nd half.
The Washington Huskies welcomed a new offensive and defensive system that had it’s struggles early on but was able to highlight a new style of play that saw better ball movement and outside shooting. All of this was without Kentucky Transfer Sahvir Wheeler and 4 star Freshman Wesley Yates but plenty others made their Huskies Debut. Wheeler and Yates both sat out the game with unspecified injuries.
Rutgers Transfer Guard Paul Mulcahy got the Huskies started with a 3-pointer on his first attempt to give the Huskies a quick 3-0 lead. Another Transfer, Moses Wood from Portland also got in the action early with a nice Step Back 3-pointer to give Wood his first points as a Husky as well as the Huskies went back and forth with Bellarmine early on.
Without Sahvir Wheeler on the floor, the Huskies turned to Paul Mulcahy and Koren Johnson in the backcourt to start the game. Offensively, the Huskies looked a bit shaky with unforced turnovers, which was something that plagued Washington last season and allowed Bellarmine to get out to an early lead. Koren Johnson was able to help the Huskies stay close by driving inside the lane for a couple of layups but also picked up 2 quick fouls that sent him to the bench with 9 minutes left in the first half, which left Huskies fans feel a little uneasy early on.
Nebraska Transfer Wilhelm Breidenbach got the start at Center and not Braxton Meah or Franck Kepnang, who returned from an ACL Injury suffered last season in Corvalis against Oregon State. Meah came into the game listed as questionable after missing the Exhibition match and looked rusty early on. Meah committed 2 quick fouls and 3 turnovers in less than 2 minutes and did not play again.
Big Franck Kepnang was able to shake off his rust fairly quickly and scored on a power dunk off a great pass from Lamar Transfer Nate Calmese. Kepnang was able to get his second dunk off another good pass from Paul Mulcahy and then a few minutes later, Kepnang was able to lay it up for his 7th point in only a few minutes of action. Kepnang also showed great mobility on defense chasing around the smaller Bellarmine Knight players early on.
Bellarmine came into Alaska Airlines with one of the more unique offenses and showed why they were able to upset Louisville last year with great passing and not many wasted dribbles early on. They like to take advantage of teams that let down for a moment and have shooters all over the court. Bellarmine was able to jump out to a 22-15 lead with 7 minutes to go in the first half until UW was able to go on a big 20-8 run to end the half.
Another transfer to talk about early on was Lamar Transfer Nate Calmese. Calmese started the Washington scoring run by scoring 5 quick points after a coast to coast layup to pull the Huskies within 2 at 22-20. Calmese also had a smooth layup with the foul and knocked down the free throw. Pun intended, Calmese brought a calmness to the court and helped settle the Huskies down when things were looking a bit shaky.
The Huskies ended the last few minutes of the first half on a 13-2 run as Sophomore Koren Johnson scored 4 points including 2 assists to close out the half. Johnson also nailed a jumper with one second left in the half to head into the locker room with 9 points and 34-27 lead, while shooting 52% from the field. The Huskies also finished with 7 assists on 13 field goals but were a little sloppy with 12 turnovers.
“Scorin’ Koren” Helps the Huskies Run Away In the 2nd Half
Before we get back to Koren, if you are wondering why Keion Brooks was not mentioned earlier it’s because the Pre-season Pac-12 Second team nominee had a rough start to the 2023 season in the 1st half. Brooks seemed to be pressing early on and Bellarmine did their best to throw anything they could at Brooks. Brooks was held scoreless for the first 15 minutes and missed a wide open dunk after a great pass from Mulcahy. Brooks finally got on the board with a layup and finished the first half with 4 points and 3 turnovers.
Brooks would later find his groove and get in the action but the star of the show tonight would be Koren Johnson, who exploded in the second half with 4 quick three-pointers in the 2nd half to help the Huskies pull out to a 20+ lead in the first 8 minutes. Johnson would finish with a career high 5 made 3-pointers.
Once the Huskies built the big lead, Washington started to roll offensively and others joined the party. Franck Kepnang perhaps had the play of the game with a nice drop step that turned into a reverse slam for Big Franck to give the Huskies a 68 to 45 lead.
Keion Brooks finally got it going and scored 18 second half point to give him 22 points after the slow start, including shooting 2/3 from 3. Brooks looked a lot more comfortable in the 2nd half and showed off an improved three-point shot that could become a weapon for Brooks this season.
Another transfer to mention would be Fresno State Anthony Holland. Holland was able to get his first points as a Husky with smooth looking three pointer from the wing. Holland then immediately followed up with a steal and made his presence felt. Holland, known for his defense at Fresno State, chipped in 3 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in productive minutes off the bench. Holland finished with a team high +29 margin and made a big impact on the game.
No Zone No Problem
Another big highlight for the Huskies would be the new look Man-to-Man defense, which looked like a big improvement from recent seasons on defense overall. Just one game but the Huskies were moving around all over and making it very difficult for Bellarmine to find open shots. The only success Bellarmine had offensively early on was posting up their guards but that quickly changed once Franck Kepnang and Anthony Holland entered the ball game.
The Huskies did not play a single possession of the 2-3 Zone and held Bellarmine to 34% FG shooting (21-61) and forced 20 turnovers.
Washington was also able to out rebound Bellarmine 36 to 28, which helped the Huskies push the ball in transition. A good sign for things to come this season but still a lot of room for improvement, especially with a healthy trio of Braxton Meah, Franck Kepnang and Wilhelm Breidenbach available for future games.
Offensively, the Huskies finished the game shooting a scorching 62% on 36-58 shooting and 10-20 from 3 (50%). Washington also finished with 19 assists to 16 turnovers and only had 4 turnovers in the 2nd half, which helped the Huskies run away.
Besides Koren Johnson chipping in 25 points on Five made threes and Keion Brooks with a relatively quiet 22 points, Senior Paul Mulcahy and sophomore Nate Calmese helped lead the way for Washington.
Mulcahy may end up flirting with a triple double this season and finished with 9 points (3/4 shooting), 8 rebounds and 7 assists (3 turnovers). Mulcahy made some fantastic passes and showed off his ball handling throughout the game. Mulcahy also registered his 500th career assist and stepped up big without Sahvir Wheeler able to suit up.
Nate Calmese will be difficult to keep off the floor this season and finished with 13 points, 4 assists (0 turnovers) and 4 steals. Wilhelm Breidenbach only scored 3 points but pulled in 9 strong rebounds and blocked a shot in 21 minutes. Breidenbach and Frank Kepnang combinded for 12 points, 11 rebounds and 1 block at the Center position.
Next up, the Huskies turn to Northern Kentucky on Thursday November 9th and look to keep the momentum going.