Updated Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 03:22 PM
After four relatively easy wins against overmatched opponents, including Saturday's 67-57 victory over Northern Illinois, things are about to get serious for Washington.
In many ways, the next five games could decide its season.
The Huskies play four straight contests on the road starting Saturday at Connecticut (9-2), their final nonconference encounter.
Their Pac-12 season begins Jan. 5 at Washington State followed by a road trip the Bay Area to face California and Stanford. The Huskies return home Jan. 16 for the conference home opener against defending tournament champion Colorado.
The combined record of Washington's previous four opponents is 8-29, while its next five foes have a combined 41-15 record.
"No question about it, the level of competition is going up," said C.J. Wilcox, who finished with 22 points and seven rebounds against NIU. "I think we're ready. We let a couple go away, but we've learned from them and we're going to try to keep taking steps forward to put that behind us."
In their minds, the Huskies believe they should be 10-2 rather than 8-4.
The 63-62 loss to Albany and the 76-73 setback against Nevada still sting. "You can say we've dug ourselves a hole with how we've played, and that makes these games coming up even more important," said Aziz N'Diaye, who notched his fourth double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds against NIU. "We weren't playing good for a while. Then we started playing and tonight, I don't know, there was some good and bad."
Northern Illinois (2-8) entered the game tied for 326th in the RPI rating among the 347 Division I teams, which probably explains why only 7,805 were in attendance at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Washington knew a win wasn't going to do much for its résumé.
Still, the Huskies had hoped they were beyond playing down to the level of their opponent. They manhandled their three previous opponents and were cruising to another rout before getting sidetracked in the second half.
Washington led 36-25 at the break and was up by 14 points (60-46) with 5:16 remaining when NIU scored consecutive three-pointers to cut the deficit to eight (60-52).
The Huskies struggled to find consistent shooting all night. They shot 32.3 percent (10 of 31) from the field in the first half and 30.8 percent (8 of 26) in the second.
Washington finished with a season-low 31.6 field -oal percentage that would have been its undoing if the Huskies hadn't been so stellar on free throws.
They shot a season-high 91.7 percent (22 of 24) at the line, while NIU was 8 of 11.
However, Washington made just one field goal in the final 9:44 minutes. Its inability to make shots gave NIU an opening to get back into the game.
Northern Illinois received 18 points from Abdel Nader and 10 from Kevin Gray, but it was sophomore forward Keith Gray who sank a layup to cut Washington's lead to six (63-57) with 1:43 left.
"For whatever reason, we got out of sync during that period and sometimes it really tests your patience and your resolve if that ball continues to not go in the basket," coach Lorenzo Romar said. "I think that led to us being out of sync in the second half."
The game was decided on the ensuing possession when Scott Suggs missed a midrange jumper. Desmond Simmons deflected the basketball to Abdul Gaddy, who secured the rebound with 1:07 remaining.
Forced to foul, NIU sent Gaddy to the line, where he made both attempts. Wilcox capped the scoring with two foul shots while NIU missed three-pointers on its final two possessions.
"We got it done," said Gaddy, who finished with 12 points, six assists and five rebounds. "We got the win. We played all right. We know we have to get better at some things, but we are making progress."
Added Wilcox: "We've all seen how good we can play and how bad we can play. It's consistency and if we can dial in. We all know what we have to do. If we can do it on a consistent basis, it should be a pretty fun year."
|N. ILLINOIS 57|
Attendance: 7,805. Officials: Verne Harris, Deron White, Glen Mayberry.
BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Aziz N'Diaye (5) reaches above Northern Illinois' Aksel Bolin (32) in the first half to pull down one of his 12 rebounds for Washington. N'Diaye recorded a double-double Saturday with 13 points, second-most on the team.