After riding high during a two-week, four-game win streak, the University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team got hit hard by the reality of Luke Nelson and UC Irvine late Saturday night, as Nelson scored a game-high 29 points to help the Anteaters race past Hawai’i, 72-58, in a Big West Conference men’s basketball showdown.
A spirited black-clad, “Black-Out” crowd of 7,452 at the Stan Sheriff Center watched Ioannis Dimakopoulos add 11 points and five rebounds as UCI improved to 15-12 overall, 8-3 in the Big West, including a sweep of the regular-season series with Hawai’i.
Gibson Johnson scored 19 points, Noah Allen added 18 points and Sheriff Drammeh contributed 12 points for the Warriors, whose season-high four-game win streak was snapped to fall to 12-12, 6-5. Jack Purchase added nine points and five rebounds, as only four players scored in the game for the Warriors.
Hawai’i jumped out to a surprising 14-4 lead, but went cold over the next nine minutes as the Anteaters got hot and went on a blistering 23-2 run capped by Max Hazzard’s jumper from the right wing to make it 27-16 with 3:45 remaining until halftime.
Allen finally broke the drought with a layup 14 seconds later, but Jaron Martin answered with a left-handed floater to help UC irvine end the half with an 8-2 run to lead 35-20 at the break.
The Warriors could not get closer than 11 points in the second half.
“Give credit to Irvine — they flexed their muscles on the glass (out-rebounding UH 39-22), they’re balanced on the inside and surround themselves with shooters,” said Warriors coach Eran Ganot. “We came out of the gates strong, but then there was a turning point and their depth wore us down.”
Hawai’i was already short-handed with starting guard Leland Green missing his third straight game with a stomach virus, and the Anteaters scored 22 points off the bench compared to zero for the Warriors.
UH started fast, taking a 4-0 lead on a pair of jumpers by Allen and then going on a 10-0 run sparked by Drammeh’s 3-pointer and capped by Jack Purchase’s 3 that made it 14-4 with 13:33 remaining in the half.
But UC irvine answered with a 3-pointer by Eyassu Worku to ignite a 12-0 run capped by Nelson’s 3 from the right corner to put the Anteaters ahead, 16-14, with 9:42 left. Allen responded with a mid-range banker from the left side 25 seconds later, but Jonathan Galloway then hit a free throw at the 8:56 mark to give UCI the lead for good and start an 11-0 surge capped by Hazzard’s jumper that made it 27-16 with 3:45 remaining.
The turnaround was hauntingly familiar to one at Irvine on Jan. 7, when the Warriors led early but then suffered through an 11-minute scoring drought resulting in a double-digit halftime deficit.
“It kind of was similar to that game — we had a good start, but then couldn’t get anything going after that,” said Johnson, who was limited to four points on 2-for-7 shooting in the first half Saturday. “We cannot allow ourselves to have that happen.”
Ganot said the symptoms were similar to last month’s game.
“Most importantly, we missed some layups and missed some free throws, and that deflated us a bit,” Ganot said. “We had made strides in that, but it affected us tonight and we started to settle for jump shots and got farther and farther out toward the 3-point line. We were getting late in the shot clock, and became 3-point happy.”
Hawai’i was just 2 for 11 (18.2 percent) from 3-point range in the first half and 9 of 29 (31 percent) on field goals overall. They also went 0 for 4 from the free throw line in the first half, in addition to being out-rebounded, 24 to 12, including 20-9 on the defensive glass.
For the game, the Warriors finished with a season-low six free throws, and a season-low .500 percentage (6 for 12) from the free-throw line. The 22 rebounds was also a season-low for Hawai’i, which was averaging 32.1 rebounds per game prior.
“The two biggest things in this game were our lack of composure in the first half when things weren’t going well for us, and our inability to contain Luke Nelson,” Ganot said.
Nelson, a smooth-yet-dazzling 6-foot-3 senior shooting guard, put on a spectacular show of shots from all angles and distance. He scored 13 points in the first half on 5-for-9 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range, and was just as deadly in the second half (5 for 10 overall, 3 for 5 on 3-pointers).
“If Nelson doesn’t hit some of those tough 3-pointers, it might have been different, but give him credit for making tough shots,” Johnson said. “He’s a really talented kid, tough to guard because he is a threat in so many ways … he can drive, shoot and pass.”
Ganot said Nelson is even more dangerous once he gets into a rhythm, which happened several times Saturday night.
“He’s a great competitor, has a lot of confidence, and he’s gotten better every year,” Ganot said. “He’s a streaky player, and if you let him get going … there are things we could have done better, but if you lapse on him, he gets going.”
A 3-pointer by Drammeh from the left wing closed it to 41-29 with 16:41 remaining in the second half, but Nelson then bookended a 10-3 run with 3-pointers from each corner to put the Anteaters ahead, 51-32, with 13:04 left.
With Johnson leading the way, the Warriors chipped away and closed it to 62-51 on Johnson’s layup with 3:55 remaining. But Dimakopoulos answered with a jump hook 25 seconds later to spark an 8-3 run that essentially put the game away.
Despite the loss, Johnson and Ganot said UH’s second-half effort shows how much the Warriors have improved since the first Jan. 7 meeting with UCI.
“For the first time since that game, we lost our composure, but in the second half our ball movement came back and all of a sudden we shot 60 percent,” Ganot said. “We just have to play better and take care of the little things, (like) missed layups and free throws. But our group stayed together. It was an unfriendly reminder, but we handled it well last time, and we just have to do it again.”
(Game photos courtesy Chris Kadooka and Brandon Flores / www.brandonfloresphotography.com)
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at UC Davis 77, UC Riverside 63
at CSUN 77, UC Santa Barbara 55
at Cal State Fullerton 74, Long Beach State 69
UC Irvine 72, at Hawai’i 58
Cal Poly at CSUN
Hawai’i at UC Santa Barbara, 5:00 p.m. (Hawai’i time)
UC Davis at Long Beach State
Cal State Fullerton at UC Riverside