PULLMAN — After squandering a 17-point lead in the first half and trailing by four with less than six minutes left, the Washington Huskies needed a collective effort to pull out a 68-63 victory over cross-state rival Washington State in the Pac-12 opener.
They needed senior center Aziz N'Diaye, who seemingly gobbled up every missed shot and provided scoring in the paint while finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
They needed a tag-team effort from sharpshooters C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs. Wilcox carried the Huskies early while scoring 13 of his 18 points in the first half while Suggs (11 points) took over in the final minutes and scored UW's last three baskets.
But without Desmond Simmons, Washington wouldn't have won its Pac-12 opener.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore forward led a defensive effort that handcuffed Washington State senior Brock Motum and held him to 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting.
"Motum is a great scorer," Simmons said. "I knew going into the game they were going to try to get him the ball as much as possible. I feel like tonight might be my best game as far as keying in on defense and not letting a guy like that go off."
When asked to pick an MVP, coach Lorenzo Romar didn't hesitate in choosing Simmons.
"The job that he did defensively. Wow!" he said. "Brock is capable of going for 30. ... Once the ball is in Brock's hands, he's sometimes unstoppable."
Motum led the Pac-12 in scoring last season and he entered Saturday's game averaging 19.7 points, which was second in the conference. At halftime, he had four points.
His offensive struggles were indicative of the defensive vise the Huskies had on the Cougars.
In fact, it couldn't have been a better start for Washington, which jumped out to a 21-4 lead with 9:44 left while holding WSU to 2-for-13 shooting from the floor and four turnovers.
Shawn Kemp Jr. punctuated the early run with a pair of slam dunks, including a soaring jam that was reminiscent of his high-flying father who starred with the Sonics.
The Huskies (9-5) missed an opportunity to deliver an early knockout and their offense went stagnant.
Washington State gained momentum and Washington led 34-27 at the break.
"A lot of times in games like this no matter who you're playing or where you're playing, unless the teams are overly matched, teams come back," Romar said. "We let up defensively and that's how they were able to come back."
Washington led 41-31 with 15:34 left when Washington State (9-5) made its run.
Motum drained a three-pointer that brought the crowd of 7,711 at Beasley Coliseum to its feet and gave the Cougars their first lead, 51-50, with 7:17 left.
Minutes later, DaVonte Lacy converted a layup and WSU led 56-52 at the 5:44 mark.
Admittedly Wilcox, who played a team-high 33 minutes, tired and the Cougars limited his opportunities.
The Huskies turned to Suggs, who had been a non-factor in the first 35 minutes.
"He took the ball and took over," Romar said. "You need guys that are going to score in spite of them taking you out of your stuff and that's what he did down the stretch."
Trailing 59-58, Suggs drained a long jumper despite tight coverage that gave UW the lead. Motum answered with two free throws before Suggs hit another long jumper.
After a Lacy miss, Suggs converted a layup and Washington led 64-61 with 1:02 left.
"I knew it was big shots and we needed a bucket there," Suggs said. "I didn't know it would be a dagger."
Andrew Andrews capped the scoring for UW with four free throws.
"We kept our poise throughout the game," Simmons said. "We let them back in the game, but we kept our poise. Stayed calm and we weathered the storm."
©2013 The Seattle Times. Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.