University of Washington

South Dakota will challenge No. 23 Huskies’ struggling 3-point defense

Mike Hopkins brought it up unprompted. One minute Washington’s head coach was talking about the progress the No. 23 Huskies has made offensively and the next, he was stressing the importance of 3-point defense.

It’s a point he’s often returned to this season, and it’s not difficult to figure out why. The Huskies are allowing teams to shoot 38.4 percent from the 3-point line, which ranks a dismal 321st in the country. Last season, UW held opponents to 32.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

But this year’s team, which relies heavily on two five-star freshmen, is still learning. “Baby steps” is a phrase Hopkins has uttered often, and one he will probably say a lot more by the time the season comes to an end. Before the Huskies’ eight day break, they put together their best offensive performance of the season in an 88-69 victory over San Diego. That was a step forward offensively. Now, UW is looking for one on the other side.

“You’re just going to see this team hopefully being incremental and just getting better and better as the season goes progresses, Hopkins said Sunday. “You do not want to peak right now. We’re far from that. Defensively, we need to defend the three better. Basic things to do what Washington basketball does is defend the three. We’re not doing a great job of that right now.”

All but one teams this season (Maine) has shot at least 38 percent from the 3-point line against the Huskies. But even the Black Bears eventually hit their stride, shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc in the second half after making just 15.4 percent of their threes in the first. Four of the Huskies’ six opponents — Mount St. Mary’s (50 percent), Tennessee (62.2), Maine (50) and Montana (55.6) — have put together a half where they shot better than 50 percent from the 3-point line.

“Numbers will say no,” Hopkins said when asked if UW’s 3-point defense has improved. “You challenge these guys all the time. Some games guys will make end of shot clock impossible threes. Sometimes that happens. … Sometimes teams will make three or four during a game when you already have the game (won).

“It’s just a focus and those numbers need to improve for us to be really, really good. On defense overall, with the man and the zone, I think these guys have adapted really well with that and I think the man has been good for us. There’s no getting around that. But the zone, same thing, it’s the experience. But they’re learning on a day to day basis and I think the younger guys are getting good at it.”

UW’s 3-point defense is a particularly big concern heading into Monday’s match-up with South Dakota. The Coyotes are the top 3-point shooting team in the country. They’ve made 47.4 percent (63-of-133) of their threes this season. Four players have attempted at least 20 3-pointers and are shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Tyler Hagedorn, a 6-foot-10 forward who earned All-Summit League second-team honors last season, has made 75 percent (18-of-24) of his 3-pointers .

South Dakota has shot better than 55 percent from the 3-point line three times this season. The Coyotes have only shot less than 30 percent twice in back-to-back game against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Arkansas. In their most recent game, a loss to Northern Arizona, they shot 58.3 percent from beyond the arc.

“(South Dakota) puts five guys on the court and space it out,” Hopkins said. “They are very, very well coached. They moved the ball and they have exceptional skill. Those teams are really, really dangerous. But those teams also really help you get better as a team if you can execute, be flying around, understand personnel.

“You’ve got to be able to defend the 3-point line. That’s what we’ve got to do a better job of. Tomorrow will be a great test. We’ve focused on it in practice and hopefully we can go out there and execute.”

Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.