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Mike Hopkins on Huskies’ turnaround: ‘They just kept fighting’

In the UW Huskies' first season under Mike Hopkins, they're in the mix for the NCAA tourney. (AP)
LISTEN: UW Men's Basketball Coach Mike Hopkins recalls a tough lesson for the Huskies

The Washington men’s basketball team climbed ahead in the final minutes to defeat No. 25 Arizona State 68-64 Thursday night – the latest in a series of impressive wins from this Huskies’ squad, which entered the 2017-18 season under new head coach Mike Hopkins.

Hopkins joined Brock and Salk on 710 ESPN Seattle Friday morning to talk about the program’s impressive one-year turnaround.

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“From the beginning, they fought. We started off the whole thing and tried to train them as hard as you could,” Hopkins said of this year’s squad. “We did hills, we did rowing, we did everything to try to take them beyond their limits mentally, and you just saw how tough they were. And it wasn’t just how tough they could be, (but) how together they could be. The harder you work together and you go through a lot of the grinders kind of days and training days, you become closer as a unit.

“I don’t’ know if you remember, it was a living nightmare (when we played Saint Martin’s in the first game of the season). They were making 3s from all over the place … and (while) down, they just kept fighting back and found a way to win. They just kept fighting, and it shows a lot of character from these kids.”

Washington hired Hopkins, a former assistant coach to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, last March following its dismissal of longtime head coach Lorenzo Romar. After posting a 9-22 record last year (2-16 Pac-12), the Huskies have since turned things around and are 16-6 and third in the conference.

Hopkins offered a (queasy) anecdote of the Huskies’ toughness, stemming from a training exercise at the beginning of the season (you can hear the entire clip, embedded above).

“We were running this hill out in Kirkland – and again, I might have my geography there a little wrong – but there were some wineries over there, and there was this hill that (assistant coach) Will Conroy said he had only done three (times), and there’s no way. So I said, ‘Well take me to it.’ And I ran it and literally got halfway up, and I started just one foot over the other like, ‘I’m gonna make it and I’m not gonna die today,’ Noah (Dickerson) is up top, he can’t get to me, I would be out. So we bring the team there, and they’re running. And next thing you know, you see guys keeling over, even on the way down, throwing up, four, five, six guys, and we just kept going until the job was done. And we got up to the top of the hill, the coaching staff, and they got up, and it was this moment of pain.

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“And then we came back probably a month later and they did it with ease. We took them up on the top, and it was like, ‘Listen, it’s just like anything. You play a team, you learn, and you move forward. We learned and we moved forward. We got here, now look how much better we are. We finished and we did more.’ I think those were the moments that I really wanted to instill in the coaching staff. It was: We’re going to lose, we’re not going to be perfect. But it’s going to be (about how) we react to it and how we get better after every game. I really think that that’s held true to this team, for the toughness and the mindset.”

Washington is set for another big game on Saturday against No. 9 Arizona. A win over the Wildcats would be the third over a ranked team for the Huskies this season and could vault them into the top 25 rankings.

Hear Hopkins’ entire interview with Brock and Salk.