COLUMBUS, Ohio — There is nothing that delights Washington more than being a pain in the you-know-what.
Let other teams focus on what they’re getting – points, 3-pointers, gaudy shooting percentage. The Huskies are more interested in what they’re taking away. So when they see frustration on their opponents’ faces, or catch players looking to their bench for answers to their zone, that’s about the best feeling ever.
“It’s a combination of being fearful and just lost. They’re scared to throw a pass because we’re tipping everything, and they’re lost because it seems like there’s nowhere to go,” said Matisse Thybulle, who can make quite a case for being the best defensive player in the country.
“When you see that on their face, it’s like a shark smelling blood,” Thybulle added, glee in his voice. “It’s exciting.”
For the Huskies, sure. For those who have to play them, it’s 40 minutes of exhaustion and wanting to tear their hair out.
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Utah State’s Sam Merrill came into the NCAA tournament averaging 21 points a game, and was the only player in the country shooting better than 46 percent from the floor, 37 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the foul line. But the Huskies smothered him so relentlessly it’s going to be July before Merrill loses that feeling of claustrophobia.
He was scoreless at halftime, having gotten off just three shots. He finished with 10 points, but four of those were on free throws. He was 2-of-9, and had six turnovers, a season high and more than he’d had in the entire Mountain West tournament. Two of those turnovers were because of offensive fouls.
“We feed on it,” Nahziah Carter said. “A lot of players tell us after the game that our zone was very tough, they couldn’t find no cracks or anything. Whenever they’re getting shot clock violations or steals, it’s the best feeling in the world.
“It’s hard to stop us when we’re getting momentum off of the defensive end.”
Now, it’s one thing to shut down Merrill and Utah State. It’s quite another to stifle the vaunted North Carolina Tar Heels, they of the No. 1 seed and national title just two years ago, as ninth-seeded Washington will try and do Sunday.
But the zone that is the foundation for everything the Huskies do has its roots in the ACC.
Washington coach Mike Hopkins spent his formative years, as a player and coach, at Syracuse, and his “Rubik’s Cube” defense will look familiar to anyone who’s watched any of Jim Boeheim’s teams. The most notable difference is the Huskies extend theirs out, trying to take away the 3-pointer as well as layups.
“We have different types of personnel, so we have to utilize it a little bit differently based on our personnel,” Hopkins said. “But it’s all — the foundation is definitely what we did at Syracuse.”
For those wondering, Roy Williams is 9-4 against Syracuse.
The Tar Heels are bigger and longer than Utah State and, obviously, have more than one player who can take over a game. North Carolina had five players in double figures in Friday night’s win over Iona, and it got big games from big men Nassir Little (19 points) and Luke Maye (16 points).
North Carolina shot a blistering 63 percent in the second half and had a resounding 48-10 edge in the paint for the entire game.
But it doesn’t change Washington’s primary objective.
“We just attack more defensively and make sure we get it out of certain players’ hands,” Jaylen Nowell said. “They’ve got key players, but everybody’s a good player on that team. So we’ve got to get it out of the key players’ hands and make the other guys make the plays for them, make the other guys beat us.”
And if they should see some of the Tar Heels muttering or throwing glances of exasperation along the way, all the better.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.