The fact it came against the worst team in the Pac-12 is irrelevant. Defeating Cal 68-51 on the road on Saturday was about as important a victory as Washington has had in several weeks, not for the quality of the opponent but for just how damaging such a loss would have been to the Huskies’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
Instead, Washington (19-10, 9-7 Pac-12) heads into the final week of the regular season in control of its fate. Sweep the Oregon schools at home, then win at least one game in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas and the Huskies’ first NCAA bid since 2011 should happen.
Losing to Cal would have changed Washington’s path, but at a critical point it put together enough offense to go with a tremendous second-half defensive effort to avoid disaster. Here is what we learned about the Huskies along the way:
Jaylen Nowell’s athleticism pays dividends
Freshman Jaylen Nowell is Washington’s leading scorer, averaging 16.3 points per game. A 46.4 percent shooter entering Saturday, the 6-foot-4 guard’s shot hasn’t been falling as much lately, and it has led to subpar offensive efforts.
He was 4 of 10 from the field against Cal but made up for that by not settling for as many jumpers and taking it to the rim. That resulted in 14 free-throw attempts and 13 makes, both career highs.
Nowell was averaging 3.2 foul shots per game and was 8 of 13 in Washington’s previous eight games. If he is going to be more aggressive when an opponent leaves that option open, the Huskies offense will add another element.
Make ’em miss
Cal shot 34 percent overall and 23.1 percent in the second half, going 4 of 17 from 3-point range with no makes in 9 attempts after halftime. Admittedly, the Bears came in as one of the worst-shooting teams in the Pac-12, if not the country, but they were coming off a solid shooting game against Washington State on Thursday.
Washington only gave up 6 field goals in the second half, with 4 of those coming in the first 3 minutes, 28 seconds. After that, Cal was 2 of 19 from the field, and during the final 16-plus minutes the Huskies outscored the Bears 25-12.
Washington wrapped up the road portion of its Pac-12 schedule with a 4-5 record, ending a three-game losing streak outside Seattle. It was the Huskies’ most conference road victories in a season since 2012-13.
All told, Washington is 5-7 in non-home games, including a defeat of 14-time reigning Big 12 champion Kansas in Kansas City on Dec. 6. Though the Huskies won’t have any more true road games this season — unless they end up in the NIT or CBI — there is still the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas and, hopefully, neutral-site games in the NCAA Tournament for them to continue to show off their improved play away from Hec Ed Pavilion.