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UPDATED: Thomas leads Warriors to 81-78 win over North Dakota

After watching a 22-point first-half lead dwindle down to one point in the game’s final minute, Hawai’i held off North Dakota, 81-78, Sunday night in the 53rd Annual Outrigger Resorts Rainbow Classic.

A Stan Sheriff Center crowd of 5,764 (tickets issued) watched Mike Thomas scored a career-high 29 points with 11 rebounds, Leland Green add 18 points and Brocke Stepteau contribute 10 points and five assists off the bench as the Warriors improved to 2-0 heading into Monday’s 7 p.m. tournament finale against Troy (1-1).

“Winning games is hard,” UH coach Eran Ganot said. “Right now I’m ecstatic for our team, that’s how I feel … you gotta enjoy these moments. There are things we need to clean up, and that’s when we’ll get back to our coaching hat.”

Thomas scored 19 of his points in the first half, when the Warriors jumped out to a 10-2 start and then stretched the lead to 34-12 after his free throw with 6:38 remaining. The Fighting Hawks then closed it to 46-31 on Geno Crandall’s running 3-point shot at the halftime buzzer.

North Dakota opened the second half with a 15-4 run that cut Hawai’i’s lead to 50-46 after Jaqwan McCauley’s free throw with 14:41 left. The Warriors later pushed the lead to 69-59 on Green’s baseline jumper at the six-minute mark, but the Fighting Hawks clawed back again and later closed it to 79-76 on Marlon Stewart’s layup with 1:14 remaining. After a UH miss, North Dakota regained possession and then cut it to 79-78 on Stewart’s scooping layup with 0:32.6 left on the clock.

Stepteau was fouled on the ensuing possession and made the second of two free throw attempts to put the Warriors up, 80-78, with 19.9 seconds remaining, and Jafar Kinsley’s open 3-pointer from about 23 feet near the top of the key was just off the mark, with Hawai’i’s Gibson Johnson grabbing the rebound.

Johnson was immediately fouled and then sank the first of two free throws with 1.4 ticks on the clock for the final margin, as Stewart’s ensuing 80-foot Hail Mary at the buzzer hit hard, but harmlessly, off the backboard.

“It was frustrating, but I’m glad we did it,” said Thomas, whose previous career high was 20 points vs. Long Beach State on Jan. 30, 2016. “We showed a lot of toughness, we showed some maturity and some experience, and got the job done. I’m excited about that, but we were up 20 … we shouldn’t win by just three.”

Almost anyone who watched the first half — when the Warriors were really clicking on all cylinders — and did not watch the second half would have been surprised to see the final score. UH blazed to a 10-2 start that included forcing the Fighting Hawks into near shot-clock violations on their first two possessions, 3-point swishes by Green and Jack Purchase, and a slam dunk by Thomas after Purchase found him wide open on a backdoor cut.

The intensive defensive effort, crisp ball movement and sharpshooting (18 of 30 field goals, 60 percent) on offense, plus aggressive board work on both ends continued throughout the game’s first 19 minutes, with Thomas’ nifty left-handed layup putting the Warriors ahead, 45-25, with 1:04 remaining.

“Our preparedness, the way we started the game — the energy, the focus — for a 10 or 12-minute stretch, that might have been the best basketball I’ve watched, or coached, or been a part of. For a 10 or 12-minute stretch, that was an offensive and defensive clinic.

“(But) credit North Dakota — they’re an NCAA Tournament team (last season), and they’re used to winning a lot of games — for the way that they responded. And they had us on our heels. That’s the truth, they played physical, they started attacking the rim with a lot more vengeance, they got to the (free throw) line and we didn’t defend well. So we went from two extremes: We defended well (in the first half), and then we defended poorly. Now there’s a reason they were one of the best teams in the country offensively, but that’s the challenge we had coming in.”

After Green’s 15-foot jumper from the left baseline put Hawai’i’s lead at 69-59 at the six-minute mark, Connor Avants answered with a three-point play to ignite a 10-4 run capped by Stewart’s left-handed, running bank shot which closed it to 73-69 with 3:45 remaining. Later, a cutback by Crandall cut it to 76-73 with two minutes left, and then Stewart scooped in his layup to make it 79-78 with 0:32.6 showing.

“After the first half, we knew that’s an NCAA Tournament team we just played against, so we knew they’re not gonna go down easy, they’re gonna come out with a punch in the second half,” Stepteau said. “And we didn’t handle that very well at the start. It was two good teams going at it, and it was good, it builds character this early in the season to come together and get that win.”

Stepteau, who started most of last season’s games at point guard, said the experience he and other returnees gained in what amounted to a rebuilding year helped Sunday night.

“We had a lot of battle wounds last year, a lot of inexperience,” Stepteau said. “This year it’s different, we’re more composed, we know what we need to do. And having (Thomas) back is a huge help, I mean, he had 29 and 11 — it doesn’t get much better than that. He’s a monster on both ends of the floor.”

Crandall, a junior guard who scored 37 of his career-high 41 points in the second half of North Dakota’s victory over Troy last Friday, led the Fighting Hawks with 21 points Sunday. Stewart added 18 points, and Avants contributed 14 — they each had 10 points in the second half, and Crandall had 12 points after halftime.

Troy, which defeated Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 81-57, in Sunday’s other tournament game, held off UH, 65-63, in a non-conference meeting at the SSC last year. The Warriors trailed 16-0 in that game’s first five minutes before rallying back.

“I have a lot of respect for (Troy coach) Phil Cunningham and the way they run their program,” Ganot said. “(They are) just a tough, gritty group, and they have a couple player of the Year candidates in their league, and the Sun Belt Conference has been on the rise. Wesley Person can really shoot it, he’s one of the best shooters we’ll see all year. And (Jordon) Varnado is one of the best inside players we’ll see all year.

“There’s a lot of talk about us returning (many) guys back from a 14-win team, well, they return as many or more from an NCAA Tournament team who played here before, won here before. It’s gonna be a heck of a challenge.”

CLICK HERE to view boxscore

(Game photos courtesy Brandon Flores / www.brandonfloresphotography.com)

CLICK HERE to view more photos

Outrigger Resorts Rainbow Classic
Friday’s Results

North Dakota 83, Troy 80
Hawai’i 82, Arkansas-Pine Bluff 70

Sunday’s Results
Troy 81, Arkansas-Pine Bluff 57
Hawai’i 81 North Dakota 78

Monday’s Games
Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. North Dakota, 4:30 p.m.
Hawai’i vs. Troy, 7:00 p.m.

Hawai’i (2-0, 0-0 Big West) vs. Troy (1-1, 0-0 Sun Belt)
When: Monday, Nov. 13, 7:00 p.m. (Hawai’i time)
Where: Stan Sheriff Center (10,300) – Honolulu, HI
Television: Live on Spectrum Sports – Channels 16 (SD) and 1016 (HD).
Streaming Video: HawaiiAthletics.com. (Must be a Spectrum cable subscriber to stream in Hawai’i).
Radio: Live on ESPN 1420 AM. Neighbor islands can listen live on KNUI on Maui, KPUA on the Big Island, KTOH on Kaua’i, and KNWJ in Pago Pago, American Samoa.
Audio Webcast: ESPN1420am.com/Sideline Hawai’i App.
Live Stats: HawaiiAthletics.com
Ticket Information: Lower Level – $30 for all seats; Upper Level (prices vary by section) – $18 or $20 for adults, $16 or $18 for senior citizens (65-older), $5 or $7 for students (ages 4 to high school). UH Manoa students free with validated ID. Parking is $6.

1 Comment

  1. Game One to Game Two, UH jumps out to big leads on these teams. Then they let other teams scramble back to make a game of it. UND got outrebounded, fell behind by 22 and made an almost historic comeback to steal one from UH. Don’t know how well Big West teams, are in terms of talent , and teamwork, Defense. We shall see. Bottom line for Ganot and Team. 2-0. Early season.
    If Troy can run their offense, make shots, rebound with UH, and pressure UH, they just might upset the Warriors. Actually I like these competive games. Very interesting, however like the past, you reach for the antacid!
    Go Bows. get to 3-0.. UH could actually go off on a 8 or 9 game winning streak!

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