In making the point that guard Isaiah Thomas is still the primary driving force of this team despite their increased depth this year, perhaps his rebounding performance last night is a good starting point.
With Portland effectively mixing defensive schemes to hold Thomas to 1-for-4 shooting in the second half, he found other ways to impact the game. Most notable was his team-high seven rebounds, which he split relatively evenly between halves.
Without knocking the rebounding ability of UW's 5-foot-9 star guard, him leading the team could stand as a challenge to the rest of the team.
"They hear it," said coach Lorenzo Romar when asked about what he said to the post players about Thomas' rebounding. "That's not a knock on Isaiah's ability to rebound either. He's our third or fourth leading rebounder - he's always been a good rebounder."
Granted, as Romar also noted, the Huskies have defined themselves over the years as a program that rebound as a unit, with no one player standing out as a dominant rebounder (outside of Jon Brockman's tenure with the team).
But the larger point might be that Thomas' production didn't end with a few rebounds when he wasn't able to score from the field - Thomas also contributed three of the team's ten assists and eight of the team's 18 free throws in the second half. Although those numbers might not immediately jump out on the stat sheet - particularly given that he only made four of those eight second half free throw attempts - they were important contributions to what Romar ultimately described as key aspects of the game and helped the Huskies find some form level of offensive efficiency even when Portland stepped up the defense in the second half.
Key statistic: shooting efficiency
"We had 20 assist, nine turnovers, we shot 53 percent from the field and [70.4 percent] from the foul line and went to the line 27 times, so exactly what we did tonight is what we'd like to do," said Romar, when asked about how he'd expect his team to respond to the type of defense Portland was throwing at them.
In the broader scheme of things, whether it be scoring nine of the team's 14 points in the final six minutes of the first half to extend a six point lead to 15 at halftime or doing a little bit of everything in the second half when Portland again whittled the lead down to six, Thomas is the engine that makes this team go. What this game might have demonstrated more than anything else is how reliant the team is on Thomas despite the team's highly touted depth this season.
"Isaiah Thomas was a warrior tonight," said Romar of Thomas who finished tied for a team-high with 20 points. "He leads us in rebounding with seven. He chased Stohl - who's a tremendous shooter and they run a lot of stuff for him - all night. And I thought did a good job. And then he went out and scored 20 points himself."
Nevertheless, the fact that other players had better games on paper might have obscured Thomas' performance a bit.
Washington statistical MVP: Justin Holiday
Once again, it was Justin Holiday got the team going at the beginning of the game with seven of the team's first 11 points in the game. And as much as Thomas has been for the team, Holiday is making teams pay if they ignore him this season.
"Once again, I don't really try to force much." said Holiday who finished with 20 points on 5-for-7 shooting and six rebounds. "In situations when it's open, I have to shoot. In the past - during my freshman and sophomore year - we've talked about how I wasn't really a scorer, I wasn't really aggressive offensively. But sometimes I might have to be that way. So I'm just helping the team right now.:
And although his scoring production tapered off in the second half, he also did a good job in staying aggressive on the boards, hitting free throws (although two came after a hard intentional foul by Portland's Ryan Nicholas late in the game), and playing defense on Luke Sikma.
Key player: Matthew Bryan-Amaning
Shortly after Holiday's second three in the first five minutes of the game, Matthew Bryan-Amaning entered the game and made an immediate impact by showing some aggression that got him to the free throw line. That type of play is certainly what one might hope for as a result of his move to the bench.
However, when Bryan-Amaning first came off the bench against Long Beach State, Bryan-Amaning suggested the move was temporary. And now after three games of Aziz N'Diaye starting, Romar isn't exactly forthcoming about just how long temporary is.
"The first time (he didn't start), afterwards I was asked that and I said Matthew eventually will probably be back in there," said Romar when a reporter asked about starting Bryan-Amaning. "I was asked that again (after Texas Tech) and same answer. So I'm going to give you the same answer: I would say eventually, I would imagine that he will be back in there."
And the fact that Romar is non-committal at least partially demonstrates that it isn't a huge deal - as Romar has said, Bryan-Amaning has been playing similar minutes and, statistically, he's been extremely productive - last night, he finished with 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting, got six rebounds, and got eight free throw attempts.
However, there are still moments that represent the type of ups and downs that were the justification for the removing him from the starting lineup to begin with.
After drawing a charge on Pilots guard Tim Douglas, he made a perfectly timed, one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a cutting Justin Holiday that resulted in a one-handed dunk. The very next possession, he got the ball on the block and was once again looking to make a pass, but after an aggressive third fake pass to cutters, he shuffled his feet and traveled.
It's a small example and ultimately he is looking much more aggressive at times. But those sort of mental lapses paired with the rebounding "challenge" that Romar alluded to definitely frame what one might like to see more of from Bryan-Amaning.
Portland statistical MVP: Luke Sikma
With nobody stepping up to control the boards for Washington, Luke Sikma stepped up and continued to dominate the boards as he's done all season, finishing with 16 rebounds and 14 points.
"I think we're getting to the point where defending and playing hard is becoming our identity so we had a fun time doing that," said Romar. "If we can just get the rebounding thing down we'll be a lot more complete."
He was particularly impressive in the second half when the Pilots needed a lift, continuing to rebound but also showing an outstanding shooting touch around the basket and just generally efficient play. After a C.J. Wilcox three put Washington up 18 points, it was Sikma who stepped up with eight points over the next seven minutes to help close the gap to six with 8:25 left in the game.
From that point on, the Huskies clamped down defensively to help them go on an 11-0 run and "hung on" to win by 22 points.
How important was the challenge Portland posed?
There are some who will argue that the challenge that Portland posed the Huskies at home was a good thing because
And undoubtedly, Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar will be using it as a "teachable moment".
"I like what we had to do in this game and what we learned about ourselves," said Romar.
However, looking at the game more closely, finding words to appropriately describe it is not exactly easy to do precisely.
Given a somewhat tepid crowd atmosphere and how effectively Portland slowed the game down, one might say "uninspiring" is a good way to describe the game as a spectator experience.
However, as a basketball game, guard Isaiah Thomas helps us far better by simply saying it wasn't the same as previous games.
"We was up a lot and then I looked up and we was only up six and then we won by 22," said Thomas. "So it didn't feel like the other wins."
Some will point to the obvious difference that the Huskies were challenged at home - that having an opponent within six points is good because it's a test. However, although that seems like a reasonable response when the question is asked, Justin Holiday's response might be more fitting for this particular game.
"I mean, honestly, I don't know if you'd say, 'like it' - it would be better if we had just kept them down and not let them come back at all," said Holiday. "But it's good for us to be in a situation like that and be able to hang with a team like that and be able to keep them off and keep them from winning."
The Huskies should absolutely be commended for showing the resilience to put together some big runs after the Pilots got within six in the first and second halves. On the other hand, against elite teams like they played in Maui, it's also clear that not keeping them down may result in losing control of a game altogether in a way that Portland maybe couldn't force.
Going on the road for their first true road game this weekend might be a better test of maturity and resilience.