UDATED: Warriors take control of Big West with thrilling win at UC Irvine
IRVINE, Calif. – The University of Hawai’i basketball team has turned this into a magical season on the court, and now the Warriors can now start counting magic numbers toward a Big West Conference championship.
The latest – perhaps greatest – victory of this record-chasing season came in the form of a thrilling and improbable 75-71 win at UC Irvine in an “episode II” showdown for first place game that actually outdid the original.
The Warriors trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half, but ended the game on a 9-0 run to earn their school-record sixth consecutive road win. Aaron Valdes drained a 3-pointer with 40.1 seconds remaining to give the Warriors a 72-71 lead, and then UCI missed three 3-point attempts after that, giving Hawai’i a sweep of the home-and-home series.
“It’s unbelievable,” head coach Eran Ganot said. “It’s starting to be believable, though, because it’s happened several times. These guys, they keep bringing the program, the fans, our coaches, great moments. Credit them, it always starts with the guys. Number one, it’s the players.”
Hawai’i improved to 22-3 overall and 11-1 in the Big West Conference while increasing their school-record road-win streak to six. The Warriors now have a two-game lead over UCI and Long Beach State with four games remaining.
UCI dropped to 20-8 and 9-3, and is now tied with Long Beach State for second place.
Thus, the magic number for the Warriors is now two. In short, Hawai’i can clinch at least a tie for the Big West regular season championship with two more wins (losses by Long Beach State and UCI could also make it easier for the Warriors). Three Hawai’i wins (or losses by UCI/Long Beach State) would clinch the regular-season title outright.
A near-capacity “White Out” crowd of 4,312 at the Bren Events Center was raucous throughout the game, but they headed for the exits in silence after the Warriors drained three of four free throws in the closing seconds to secure the win.
“That just sums up our season,” Valdes said. “Last year, the thing on us was we couldn’t finish games. This year, we can finish games. A lot of our games this year have been close and we’re able to pull it out. It just shows our maturity and how much we’ve grown as a team.”
Junior center Stefan Jankovic capped an incredible week of his own by scoring a game-high 25 points to go along with six rebounds and three assists. He shot 7 for 12 from the field, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range, and went 9 for 12 on free throws.
“Honestly, I haven’t felt this great in a while,” said Jankovic, who scored 34 points just two days earlier at CSUN. “Like I said, conference is tough. We just have to grind it out, if nothing else. They had their big run in their first half , and they had a halftime lead. We just kept chipping and chipping and eventually went our way.”
Valdes, who sat out the previous game at CSUN due to flu-like symptoms, added 13 points and six rebounds.
Even before his go-ahead 3-pointer, he showed that he was back in form with three highlight-reel dunks in the first half. His alley-oop dunk off an inbound play assist from Roderick Bobbitt was the No. 3 highlight on ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day.
“I really wanted to play this game,” Valdes said. “It was a big game for us, especially after the game at our place. The coaches gave me the start, the go-ahead, and (Sheriff Drammeh) was OK with it after starting the last game, so I’m just glad with my teammates and coaches for giving me the help.”
Sai Tummala scored 11 points off the bench, including 3-for-3 shooting from 3-point range, and Mike Thomas contributed 10 points and six rebounds.
“That’s one of the things I’m really happy with our team,” Tummala said. “When someone doesn’t play well, there’s another person right there to step up. I never feel like we’re out of a game because everyone’s always playing hard.”
Senior point guard Bobbitt once again turned in all-around effort with seven points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals.
“We fight through adversity and play til the buzzer goes,” Bobbitt said. “I’m just proud of our guys and how we played tonight. We never let up.”
The Warriors trailed 46-35 early in the second half , and then 68-61 with 4:30 remaining, and 71-66 with 2:11 remaining.
“A lot of times in the game, (UCI) could have separated, but we locked in, focused, had great composure,” Ganot said. “The experiences we’ve had leading up to this point have helped us in terms of those moments.”
A layup by Thomas with 1:16 remaining cut the UCI lead to 71-68, and then UH got the ball back when UCI center Mamadou N’diaye was called for traveling. On the ensuing possession, Bobbitt passed the ball on the right wing to Isaac Fleming, who then found Valdes open in the right corner.
“I had a little bit of space, and as much time as there was on the clock, I had time to form my shot and get up there, said Valdes, who missed three previous 3-point attempts prior to his go-ahead shot. ”I was happy it went in.”
There were still 40 seconds remaining after Valdes’ shot, and UCI missed a 3-pointer by Alex Young, got a questionable call on an offensive rebound, then another 3-point miss by Luke Nelson. Bobbitt grabbed the rebound off Nelson’s miss and proceeded to drain two free throws to give the Warriors a 74-71 lead with 10 seconds remaining.
Jaron Martin missed a 3-pointer on UCI’s next possession, and Thomas grabbed the rebound. Thomas then made one of two free throws to secure the win.
“We knew that we had a lot of time” Bobbitt said of the Warriors’ rally. “Just like the game before at Northridge, we were down one with one minute left. We were down (against UCI) with three minutes left, we knew it was going to be a long game. We just needed to get stops and get good shots.”
Hawai’i shot 47.2 percent from the field, and UCI shot 44.2 percent, including just 16.7 percent (3 for 18) from 3-point range. It is worth noting that the Anteaters shot 50 percent in the first half, then 37.5 percent in the second half (including 1 for 9 from 3-ponit range).
The Warriors also out-rebounded the Anteaters, 34-27, with Thomas, Valdes, Jankovic and Bobbitt grabbing six each, and Stefan Jovanovic getting five.
The first half went back and forth, with the lead changing four times. The momentum changed when Jankovic sat out the final 8:21 of the first half after picking up his second foul.
The score was tied at 22, then UCI went on an 8-0 run to take a 30-22 lead with 4:22 remaining in the first half. Hawai’i got as close as 34-30, but the Anteaters eventually took a 38-30 lead at intermission after Mamadou N’diaye scored on a dunk just before the halftime buzzer.
UCI increased its lead to 46-35 early in the second half, but the Warriors refused to give in.
The Warriors took a momentary 61-60 lead on a 3-pointer from Fleming with 7:09 remaining, but the Anteaters came back with a 3 of their own on the ensuing possession to regain the lead.
UCI increased its lead to 68-61, but the Warriors cut it to 68-66 on five consecutive points by Jankovic. Hawai’i then had a possession to tie or take the lead but Jankovic missed on a reverse layup, and the Anteaters scored the next three points to take a 71-66 lead with 2:11 remaining.
Luke Nelson led UCI with 18 points, and the 7-foot-6 center N’diaye added 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
“This, man,” Jankovic said, pointing to his chest. “We’re tough, we have heart. Three years, three different coaches, all that we’ve been through and we just keep pushing.”
The Warriors are scheduled to return to Honolulu on Sunday, and will play their final two home games during the week They will host UC Riverside on Thursday, and then CSUN on Saturday.
(Game photos courtesy Warren Haraki)
Saturday’s other Big West results
CSUN 75, at Cal Poly 71
at UC Santa Barbara 62, UC Davis 55
at Long Beach State 70, Cal State Fullerton 57
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