UPDATED: Warriors battle past Cal Poly in Big West opener
In Wednesday night’s third annual Hawai’i vs. Cal Poly knock-down, drag-out Big West Conference men’s basketball opener, the Rainbow Warriors stood toe-to-toe with the visiting Mustangs and this time battled their way to a hard-fought 86-73 victory.
A passionate and vocal crowd of 4,319 at the Stan Sheriff Center watched Roderick Bobbitt score a game-high 21 points and Aaron Valdes add 20 points as the Rainbow Warriors improved to 12-2 overall. The Mustangs, who prevailed in last year’s overtime slugfest, fell to 6-8.
Starting post Stefan Jankovic added 19 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and Isaac Fleming contributed 12 points, five assists and three rebounds off the bench for UH, which converted 34 of 42 free throws (81 percent). The 34 made free throws was one shy of the school record set in 2000.
Mike Thomas added a career-high 13 rebounds, including eight off the defensive glass. Hawai’i out-rebounded Cal Poly, 40-28.
“The last two years, it was the same kind of game, the same kind of atmosphere, the same kind of grind-it-out game,” Jankovic said. “But we wanted to make sure this year was gonna be different. It was a tough win, but we love these games.”
After a physical first half that ended up tied at 37-37, David Nwaba sank a short jumper to put Cal Poly up, 39-37, but that would be the Mustangs’ final lead of the evening, as Bobbitt’s 3-pointer broke a 42-42 tie with 17:25 remaining to give the Rainbow Warriors the lead for good.
Stefan Jovanovic’s layup with 11:57 left capped a 10-2 run that put Hawai’i ahead, 61-51. The Mustangs closed it to 66-64 after Tayler Sutlive’s 3-pointer with 7:03 remaining, but the Rainbow Warriors responded with a 9-2 run capped by Valdes’ 3-pointer from the left corner off Fleming’s swing assist with 4:18 left and held on for the victory.
“Two of the biggest plays for us came when we shared the ball, because the hardest thing to scout is passing,” UH coach Eran Ganot said. “The first was when Isaac split the defenders, drove down the middle and fed Aaron for a layup (to put the Rainbow Warriors up, 63-53, with 9:40 remaining in the game). The second was when Isaac passed up a good shot for a better shot and made the extra pass to Aaron in the corner for a 3 (to make it 75-66 with 4:18 left). The team gained so much confidence from that, it’s inspiring.”
Said Fleming: “We knew coming into the game there would be a lot of adversity, but no matter what, we were gonna stick to the game plan and overcome it.”
Cal Poly came out strong and muscled its way to a quick 14-5 lead in the first six minutes, but Fleming swished a 3-pointer from the left corner to ignite a 9-1 run which closed it to 15-14 with 12:32 remaining in the half, and Valdes later converted a three-point play to give Hawai’i its first lead since the opening moments at 29-27 with 5:04 left.
The Rainbow Warriors extended the lead to 35-29 after Jankovic glided in for a layup with 3:28 remaining, but Reese Morgan bookended an 8-0 run with a pair of deep 3-pointers to put the Mustangs back ahead at 37-35 with 37 seconds left. Quincy Smith then tied it up with a halftime buzzer-beating layup off Fleming’s assist.
“What you saw is what you would expect — it was intense,” Ganot said. “(The Mustangs) are such a challenge, because they have so much versatility and it is such a weapon to have that many shooters. I’m glad we came out on top, but it’s because we made some ‘team’ basketball plays and our guys had great energy.”
Ganot added he was also pleased to watch his team fight through for a tough win against a physical, stubborn team that made UH earn every basket.
“Whether it’s grinding it out or with finesse, we will have to be able to perform well against a lot of different styles,” Ganot said.
The Rainbow Warriors will face UC Santa Barbara at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Stan Sheriff Center. UH’s 12-2 start is the program’s best since the 2001-02 team’s 15-2 mark out of the gates en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance. Hawai’i has not been back to the Big Dance since.
“‘We’ve been through a lot of games like this last year, but sometimes we fell short,” said Fleming, a sophomore guard. “This year, we have a lot more experience, a lot more maturing … after the loss to (then-No. 3-ranked) Oklahoma (in the Diamond Head Classic on Dec. 23), we told ourselves we would never lose at home again. We’re confident we can protect our home court.”
(Game photos courtesy Brandon Flores / www.brandonfloresphotography.com)
Wednesday’s Big West Scores
Long Beach State 94, CSUN 79
Hawai’i 86, Cal Poly 73
UC Davis at UC Irvine
Cal State Fullerton at UC Riverside
UC Davis at Long Beach State
CSUN at Cal State Fullerton
UC Riverside at UC Irvine
UC Santa Barbara at Hawai’i, 7:00 p.m.
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