Washington has had its chances this year against top competition. Paul Mulcahy missed a free throw with 1 second left that would’ve allowed UW to beat San Diego State in regulation before falling by 3 in overtime. The Dawgs were tied with a ranked Colorado State team with 1:15 left before falling just short.
Both of those games were in Las Vegas but Washington found lady luck this time at home. Franck Kepnang’s energy on both ends sparked a Husky defense that clamped down in the 2nd half and Washington surged ahead for a 78-73 win over #7-ranked Gonzaga. The win improves the Huskies to 5-3 overall and is the first UW win over their cross-state adversaries since December 4th, 2005.
Both teams love to play up-tempo and neither showed much of an inclination to play defense in the early going. No one stopped the ball on a Gonzaga pick and roll and Ryan Nembhard had an open layup on the game’s first possession before Paul Mulcahy answered with an open corner 3 for the Huskies. The Zags got the ball down low to Graham Ike early and got a bit of good luck when a rebound went straight up in the air off Franck Kepnang’s hands and in for a Zags basket to go up 11-5.
Kepnang helped UW try to get back into the game, swatting a shot on the defensive end then securing a putback dunk to put Washington back within a single score. Moses Wood got into the block party with a chase-down swat of Nolan Hickman in transition. It ended up a net negative for the Huskies though as Gonzaga inbounded and found Hickman open on the wing for a deep 3 to extend their lead out to 16-9 with 14:20 left in the first half.
Again though Washington was able to pull within 2 points following another Paul Mulcahy corner 3-pointer and a layup plus 1 of 2 free throws from Sahvir Wheeler. Every time the Huskies got close though the Zags just answered. Mark Few mixed things up and went full-court press after a pair of free throw makes. Paul Mulcahy allowed himself to get trapped in the frontcourt and the resulting steal created an open dunk for Anton Watson. Gonzaga’s 11-2 edge in points off turnovers in the first half were the big difference in the score.
Franck Kepnang refused to let Washington fall out of touch with Gonzaga though. He came back in the game and was a difference maker on both ends of the floor. Koren Johnson found Franck inside for a nice basket but a few possessions later was the true highlight. Kepnang spun from one side of the paint to the rim on the other side and threw it down for an and-1 slam.
It certainly didn’t hurt the Husky comeback attempt that Gonzaga started to get into foul trouble. The Bulldogs have mostly gone with a 7-man rotation this season and starters Graham Ike and Dusty Stromer each picked up a pair of fouls while backup Braden Huff had 3 at the break.
Turnovers continued to plague Washington though. The Huskies pulled within 2 points once again at 39-37 with 4:01 left. Gonzaga went zone and a lazy Paul Mulcahy pass was intercepted and run downcourt for a wide open layup. The next time down the court the Zags kicked it out for an open 3 then after a Brooks contested miss beat the Huskies down the floor for a layup. The 7-0 run over 2 minutes extended Gonzaga’s lead out to 9 points. Sahvir Wheeler was able to hit a long 2 at the buzzer though to keep UW in striking distance at the half trailing 48-42.
It looked like Washington’s magical first half shooting (55% FG) had run out coming out of the break. A Brooks basket inside did cut the lead to 4 but both Wheeler and Kepnang had multiple misses that were going in earlier in the game. Graham Ike hit a free throw after leaking out behind the Husky defense and getting bumped by Kepnang and then a floater but picked up his 3rd foul and went to the bench. Paul Mulcahy committed another brutal turnover stepping over half-court on a hedged pick and roll and Hickman made him pay with another basket. The next time down the floor Watson hit a floater to open up a 57-46 Gonzaga lead with 15:20 left.
Washington had at least one more run left in them though. Koren Johnson ended a streak of 8 missed shots for the Huskies with a runner and then on the next possession canned a corner 3-pointer. The 3’s continued to fall as Sahvir Wheeler’s shot almost bounced over the backboard but instead fell straight back down into the hoop. On the next possession he dished it to Moses Wood who nailed an open 3-pointer. That 6-0 run prompted a Mark Few timeout with UW trailing 61-57 and 12:07 remaining.
That’s about when Franck Kepnang completely took over. He got fouled as UW entered the bonus and made both shots on the 1-and-1. On the defensive end it looked like Nembhard had an open floater but Kepnang went full extension to block the shot (although it certainly looked like the ball was coming down and could’ve been goaltending). He appeared trapped with the ball in the paint on offense but dished it off to a cutting Moses Wood for a layup. Then as Gonzaga tried to push it off the make, Kepnang tipped the ball away. It landed in the hands of Sahvir Wheeler who outraced the Gonzaga defense down the floor for a layup that tied the game at 66 prompting another GU timeout.
Washington stopped getting the benefit of the doubt on a few calls. Koren Johnson was called for a foul on a steal that would’ve resulted in a breakaway layup. Then Franck Kepnang was stripped with no call as the Huskies inbounded with 6 seconds left. Keion Brooks Jr. was left putting up a desperation 3-pointer and was clearly bumped but with no call.
Fortunately though, Gonzaga’s offense went called and the no calls plus a few badly missed Koren Johnson 3’s still saw the Huskies only trailing by 2 points at 70-68 a few minutes later. Franck Kepnang was a big reason for that as he blocked his 4th and 5th shots of the game during that stretch. Washington finally took the lead on a Sahvir Wheeler scoop shot high off the glass with 3:36 left.
Ryan Nembhard for Gonzaga got called for a push-off and then was stripped on consecutive possessions while trailing by 2. The resulting loose ball ended with Graham Ike diving into Koren Johnson’s legs to put the Huskies into the double bonus. Johnson calmly sank both free throws to go up 2 possessions with 1:08 left at 74-70. Gonzaga took a timeout and found Graham Ike inside for an and-1 to pull them back within a point.
Washington got the ball to Keion Brooks Jr. and he got to the free throw line and made both to extend the lead back out to 3. Nolan Hickman tried a bounce pass to Graham Ike but Franck Kepnang had him blanketed and Ike bobbled the ball out of bounds. Brooks hit another pair of free throws after Washington broke Gonzaga’s press and the last few desperation 3’s failed to fall for Gonzaga.
Dawgs take down No. 7 Gonzaga!— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) December 10, 2023
The win caps off a strong day for #Pac12MBB, the league's 3️⃣rd win over a non-conference Top 25 team on the same day.
Keion Brooks Jr. led the scoring with 17 while Franck Kepnang registered 14 pts, 8 reb, 5 blocks & 1 steal! Highlights ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/C063k7iTZZ
This game reinvigorates thoughts of an NCAA berth for the Huskies. The Pac-12 is struggling mightily in the non-conference and this provides a much-needed signature win. Nevada lost their first game tonight by 19 to Drake (get it together Wolfpack) but still, UW doesn’t have a bad loss yet. If UW avoids slip-ups against Seattle and Eastern then they can enter Pac-12 play at 8-3 and in a clump of 7 teams who all could finish as high 2nd behind Arizona.
Franck Kepnang was the clear star of the game with the way he dominated the paint defensively. He finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Too many times on offense he faded away and left a push shot short but his energy was the difference tonight. Five Huskies ended up in double figures: Keion Brooks Jr. (17 pts, 8 reb), Sahvir Wheeler (16 pts, 4 ast), Moses Wood (12 pts), Koren Johnson (11 pts, 4 ast), and Kepnang.
Washington won the game despite committing 19 turnovers against just 11 assists. Wheeler committed 6 and Mulcahy had 5 to “lead” the way. Koren Johnson played most of the second half with Mulcahy glued to the bench after building up the 0 assist, 5 turnover stat line.
The defense in the second half with Kepnang at the rim and Johnson at the point of attack is what allowed UW to overcome those giveaways. Gonzaga scored just 25 in the second half after piling up 48 in that first period. The Zags got 18 points inside from Graham Ike but struggled behind the arc finishing 5/18 (28%) from deep compared to Washington’s 7/20 (35%). Both teams shot 80%+ from the free throw line but UW finished with 5 more attempts.
Washington will return to action a week from tomorrow (Sunday 12/17) as the schedule builds in a break for finals week. That game will be at Climate Pledge Arena in a “road” game against Seattle U.