ANAHEIM, Calif. — The “next man up, every man up” mantra has worked wonders for the University of Hawai’i basketball team this season.
Now the Warriors can focus on “next tournament up,” and for the first time in 14 years, it is the NCAA Tournament.
Hawai’i earned a bid to the Big Dance with an exhilarating 64-60 victory over Long Beach State in the championship game of the Big West Conference Tournament on Saturday. It is the fifth time in program history that the Warriors will be in the NCAA Tournament, and the first time since 2002.
A crowd of 5,610 at the Honda Center watched the Warriors win their first Big West title (UH is in its fourth season in the conference), and dozens of the Hawai’i faithful stormed the court to celebrate with the team after the final horn sounded.
“I thought we were pretty consistent in the game in terms of the balance on both ends,” first-year head coach Eran Ganot said. “We defended, we executed offensively, other than the turnovers. That gave us the magical moment we share right now. It’s pretty special. The feeling’s indescribable. I’m just so happy for these guys.”
Hawai’i, which improved to 27-5, tying the school-record for most wins in a season, will find out its opponent and regional site when the NCAA Tournament Selection Show is televised on CBS (coverage starts at 11:30 a.m., Hawai’i time.
This championship came in dramatic style, as the Warriors received boosts from unlikely sources on a night when several of their key players were stuck on the bench with foul trouble.
Aaron Valdes led the way with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting, and he was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“It means a lot after all we’ve been through together,” Valdes said. “We all could have quit on each other, we all could have gone to other places, but we decided to stay together and stick it out and the outcome was all worth it at the end.”
Stefan Jankovic and Roderick Bobbitt – Hawai’i’s two first-team All-Big West Conference selections – were each limited to seven minutes of action in the first half due to foul trouble. They returned to their normal roles in the second half, and made significant contributions.
Jankovic scored all of his 10 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer with 2:45 remaining that broke a 58-58 tie and gave Hawai’i the lead for good at 61-58. He joined Valdes on the All-Tournament team.
“This is huge for us; honestly, we deserve this,” Jankovic said. “All the work we’ve put in, all the stuff we’ve been through with all the NCAA (sanctions) and all the distractions, three different head coaches in three years for the main group of guys. We’ve just been through so much, but we told ourselves this year that we were going to go all the way. We’re just a tough group and we all were coachable and we were focused. We can do big things going forward.”
Bobbitt secured the victory by sinking two free throws with 1.7 seconds remaining. He finished with seven points and two assists.
The Warriors also relied on their defense once again to pull them through. Hawai’i, which shot 45.7 percent from the field, limited Long Beach State to 37.3 percent field goal shooting, including just 22.7 percent (5 for 22) from 3-point range.
The Warriors also out-rebounded the 49ers, 35-30, and went 17 for 24 on free throws to Long Beach State’s 11 for 12.
Prior to Bobbitt’s final free throws, the Warriors had a 62-60 lead and came up with two defensive stops, as the 49ers had two chances to go ahead, but missed a 3-pointer on each possession.
It was also the play of Hawai’i’s unsung members that made the difference against Long Beach State. Among them:
• Junior forward Mike Thomas had nine points and six rebounds.
• Junior center Stefan Jovanovic also had nine points and six rebounds, and more than filled the gap when Jankovic was on the bench in foul trouble.
• Senior guard Quincy Smith, who was questionable to even play due to a hip injury, started the game and contributed five points, four assists and four rebounds.
• Freshman guard Sheriff Drammeh played 21 valuable relief minutes off the bench, and finished with six points (on two 3-pointers) and three rebounds.
• Sophomore guard Niko Filipovich was thrust into the spotlight after Bobbitt picked up his second foul, and he responded with four points – including a driving layup just before the halftime horn sounded to give the Warriors a 31-25 advantage at intermission.
“It’s kind of a recurring thing, next man up, every man up,” Ganot said. “I know it’s kind of cliché right now, it’s been said so often. But in the championship game, it happened again … we have a lot of confidence in our bench.”
Hawai’i scored the first five points of the second half to increase its lead to 36-25, but the 49ers refused to fold and cut it to 38-32 with 16:11 remaining.
The Warriors then scored six in a row, with the points again coming from unlikely sources – a layup and free throw by Jovanovic, and then a 3-pointer by Drammeh – to up the Hawai’i lead to 44-32.
The 49ers staged a furious rally, cutting the Hawai’i lead to 51-49 with 7:37 remaining, setting up a dramatic ebb and flow of momentum swings between the teams down the stretch.
A crucial swing came when Long Beach’s Nick Faust drained a 3-pointer to tie the score at 56 with 3:54 remaining. On Hawai’i’s ensuing possession, Faust was assessed his fifth foul while defending Jankovic, who would proceed to make both free throws to put Hawai’i ahead, 58-56.
Long Beach tied the game again at 58, then Jankovic hit what would prove to be the go-ahead 3-pointer.
Hawai’i had possession of the ball and a 62-60 lead in the final minute, but Bobbitt missed a reverse layup attempt, then was called for traveling while trying to chase down the loose ball.
On Long Beach’s final possession, Justin Bibbins had an open look at a 3-pointer from the top of the key, but it bounced left off the rim and out of bounds to Hawai’i.
With that, the Warriors exorcised two demons. One was the pain of losing in last season’s Big West Conference championship game to UC Irvine. The second was avenging two prior losses to the 49ers this season, including the season finale at Long Beach, Calif., where the Warriors had to watch the Long Beach student section storm the court after the game.
Hawai’i still received the No. 1 seed for the Big West Conference Tournament, and proved its worth by beating No. 8 Cal State Fullerton, No. 4 UC Santa Barbara, and No. 3 Long Beach State in successive days.
The 49ers, who dropped to 20-14, were led by Faust’s 17 points and eight rebounds. Bibbins added 12 points and eight assists, and Travis Hammonds, who also fouled out during the late crucial minutes, also scored 12.
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(Game photos courtesy Brandon Flores / www.brandonfloresphotography.com)
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