Warriors ready to dance in Spokane
SPOKANE, Wash. — For this University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team that has been up, over and around a long mountain range of adversity, it has always been as much about the journey as the destination.
Those two worlds have now climactically connected, as the Rainbow Warriors’ long, tumultuous but inspiring journey has brought them to the Promised Land, now identified as Spokane, Wash. — site of Friday’s 8 a.m. (Hawai’i Time) NCAA Tournament first-round game against California.
The game will be televised live nationally on TBS, and the UH players are determined to keep the journey going.
“We didn’t come here just to come,” said senior point guard Roderick Bobbitt. “We came here to win games. That’s the focus for us.”
Hawai’i (27-5) is the No. 13 seed in the South Region, while Cal (23-10) is seeded No. 4.
But the Golden Bears are well aware that the Rainbow Warriors’ story and makeup go far beyond records and statistics.
“(They’re a) talented team, with some experience,” Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Talking about change, they probably went through some level of adversity with coaching changes and (other) stuff they dealt with. So they will be ready, they have seen a lot.”
In the past 17 months alone, most of the UH players have worked under three different head coaches with varying styles/personalities/philosophy, watched three key teammates (Isaac Fotu, Negus Webster-Chan and Isaac Fleming) leave the program prematurely, and weathered the storm of an NCAA investigation and eventual punishment including a 2017 postseason ban.
That’s on top of other usual obstacles like injuries, team chemistry and tough conference scheduling.
Through it all, the Rainbow Warriors endured and overcame, and eventually journeyed to this coveted destination.
“I think it’s great, I think we earned it,” junior forward Stefan Jankovic said. “We’ve been through a lot as a team, obviously, and the core group of guys, especially, all the different coaches and all the adversity. So we’re just excited, and I think we have earned it, and I think we’re going to perform well.”
With two sudden developments this week, how Cal will perform has almost become a bigger question. The Golden Bears are regarded as talented but youthful and showed flashes of brilliance this season, but on Monday assistant coach Yann Hufnagle was fired after allegations of sexual harassment against a female reporter surfaced.
The on Wednesday, starting point guard Tyrone Wallace, a senior who was averaging a team-leading 15.3 points and 4.4 assists per game, suffered a broken bone in his right hand after a freak accident at practice. Wallace has been declared as unavailable for Friday’s game and will be replaced by backup Sam Singer (3.5 ppg).
“Sam will start the game for us, and then with (freshman) Jaylen (Brown), also (sophomore) Brandon (Chauca),” Martin said of his plan. “So I think all three of those guys will be at that position. But Sam will start the game at the point. … We won games with (Wallace injured and) Sam at our point. I’m not worried at all. Sam will do a great job at the point guard position and whoever backs him up will do well as well.”
Hawai’i coach Eran Ganot cautioned against thinking Cal is any less a challenge without Wallace.
“This is a team that is far from one-dimensional and they’re very talented,” Ganot said. “This is a team that’s very well coached, they defend, they rebound, they share the ball … they’ve played without Wallace before, a five-game stretch where they performed (well).”
Ganot said total preparation — “not just X’s and O’s” — has been key the Rainbow Warriors’ success this season.
“I think that’s one of the things we have done a pretty good job of, is always preparing our guys,” Ganot said. “It’s situations, it’s environment, we always want to do a good job before we get to anything of what’s coming and here’s things to expect. … But this team, this is an experienced team. This is a battle-tested team, tournament-tested team, been on the road in neutral sites and have performed.”
Ganot and the UH players had equal praise for their fans, who showed up in force during last week’s Big West Tournament in Anaheim, Calif., and are expected to make their presence felt in Spokane Veteran’s Memorial Arena on Friday.
“I think we have some pretty amazing fans to make that trip from Hawai’i, because that flight ain’t easy,” Bobbitt said. “And especially coming up here (to Spokane), I know it’s not easy, add a couple hours to it. That support we got in the Big West Tournament, I didn’t, honestly, expect that. But it was phenomenal and it felt like we were in our arena. So to have them travel here (too), that’s huge.”
About 50 or 60 UH fans, plus the Rainbow Warriors’ band and cheerleaders, greeted the team loudly and warmly at The Wave Island Sports Grill and Sushi Bar restaurant in downtown Spokane as it arrived for dinner Thursday night.
Earlier in the day, junior wing Aaron Valdes said the fans’ journey has paralleled the players’, and then the players were greeted and cheered during a 40-minute workout on the Arena floor.
“It’s just great for us,” Valdes said. “It’s like they’re on the team with us. So when we win, it’s not just for us, it’s for them, too.”
The Rainbow Warriors will have arrived at their destination Friday, making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 years. But will the journey continue?
Said Jankovic: “All of the stuff we have done already … this would be another great addition.”
(Photos courtesy Brandon Flores / www.brandonfloresphotography.com)
CLICK HERE to view video of the official press conference (note that the UH players and Eran Ganot appear in the first 29 minutes of the video)
HAWAI’I VS. NO. 23 CAL
What: NCAA Tournament First Round
Where: Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, Spokane, Washington
When: Friday, March 18, 8:00 a.m. (Hawai’i time)
TV: Live on TBS (Oceanic channels 551 and 1551 in Hawai’i)
Internet video: Live streaming on www.ncaa.com/march-madness-live/watch
Radio: Live on ESPN 1420 AM
Internet audio:Live on www.espn1420am.com
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