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UPDATED: Warriors fall to UC Irvine on “Senior Night”

First-place UC Irvine flexed its muscle and held off Hawai’i, 66-57, in Big West Conference Conference men’s basketball action Saturday night, but did not dampen the spirit of the Warriors or their fans.

A loyal and appreciative Senior Night “White Out” crowd of 7,353 (tickets issued) at the Stan Sheriff Center watched Evan Leonard score a game-high 19 points, John Edgar, Jr., add 14 points and eight rebounds and Tommy Rutherford contribute 12 points as the Anteaters improved to 16-15 overall, 11-4 in the Big West to remain in first place.

Drew Buggs scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds and Sheriff Drammeh added 10 points and four boards for the Warriors, who fell to 16-11, 7-7. The Warriors, who beat the Anteaters, 62-61, last week at Irvine, Calif., are in a tie for fifth place with Long Beach State with two games remaining.

However, the pain of defeat was quickly soothed and then erased by an overwhelming show of aloha by at least 4,000 fans who stayed after the game to help pay tribute to UH seniors Mike Thomas, Gibson Johnson and Zach Buscher.

“Winning or losing aside, this is a great place filled with great people, and tonight proved that,” said Thomas, speaking through a stack of lei minutes after the traditional postgame Senior Night festivities. “Whether it be my coaches, my teammates or the people in the stands, I’m so proud and so grateful for everything I have here. And you can’t always get that. If I were to leave and build something new, that might not have happened, there might have been turmoil, there might have been something wrong.

“I’m very happy with my decision, I love this place.”

Thomas had an opportunity to transfer without the penalty of sitting out a season in 2016, after the NCAA placed sanctions on the UH program. Several players did leave the program, but Thomas elected to stay. He will leave as a three-year team captain and having participated in more victories (86) than any player in school history.

Warriors coach Eran Ganot said Thomas’ choice of how to do his traditional “final dunk” during the postgame ceremony — a “tip drill” in which each teammate tipped the ball off the backboard in succession ending with younger brother Brandon tipping it for Mike Thomas to slam through the rim — was an example of his “team-first” attitude.

“(It) was reflective of Mike — he found a way to get everybody in there, that was creative,” Ganot said. “I just sat there and said, ‘This is so Mike.’ … We should all be so lucky to coach a Mike Thomas. He’s gone from what people thought he’d be a role player, into an all-conference (type) player and as good a captain as you could ever have.”

Johnson, who played on a national championship team at Salt Lake City Community College, chose Hawai’i despite the NCAA sanctions and the potential postseason ban and loss of scholarships that came with it.

“I’ll never regret meeting the people that I did out here, and playing for the guys that I did,” said Johnson, a two-year starter who earned Honorable Mention on the All-Big West Team last season. “It’s been a special experience, obviously there’s been ups and downs, but that’s life. Not everything’s going to be perfect … but me and this team, we’ve been pushing hard the past two years, and I think our best is yet to come.”

Ganot said Johnson — an undersized post player at 6 feet 8 — left his mark by not backing down from challenges.

“Gibson’s got as great a heart and as great a fire and intensity about him as you could have,” Ganot said.

Buscher, a walk-on from ‘Iolani School, turned down opportunities to play at smaller programs on the Mainland in order to fulfill his dream of playing for the Warriors.

“No regrets, there’s nothing like staying home and playing in front of your family and friends, and doing it in front of this crowd in the Stan Sheriff Center — it’s special,” said Buscher, who will graduate in May and forego his final year of eligibility. “I’m absolutely happy with my decision, no regrets at all, I wouldn’t do any different. There was a lot of unknown (during the NCAA sanctions and coaching changes), but (this) coaching staff was really accepting of me, they could have come in and cleaned house but they wanted me to be a part of this program and a part of this team. And I’m grateful for that.”

While seldom getting actual game minutes throughout his career, Buscher played an invaluable role in hosting recruits and educating them and incoming players about living in the islands.

“Being from Hawai’i, it’s part of my nature and part of my duty to show these guys what Hawai’i is all about,” said Buscher, who is from Kailua. “Of course that’s a big part of it, and Samuta (Avea) does it, too, and Dyrbe (Enos) did it before me.”

Ganot said “there’s no better teammate” than Buscher, who entered Saturday’s game with 1:26 remaining and promptly swished four straight free throws.

“Zach’s a fan favorite here (in the arena) and in the locker room, he’s a special kid,” Ganot said. “I don’t know if there’s a guy who knows our system, our program and our culture better than Buscher. He’s such a good leader, he’s gotten better … he’s an ambassador, really.”

The cheers for Buscher — including a vocal section of at least 100 family members and friends in the lower bowl — in the final 1:26 almost equaled any during the rest of the game, which the Anteaters mostly controlled by responding to every Hawai’i challenge.

Edgar capped an early 11-2 run with a jumper from the right baseline to give UC Irvine a 20-9 lead just over nine minutes after tipoff, and the Anteaters pretty much stayed in control the rest of the half in taking a 33-24 lead into the break. The Warriors did close it to 38-36 with 12:45 remaining as Drammeh’s pull-up jumper capped a 12-5 run to open the second half, but UC Irvine answered with a 16-5 surge as Leonard’s layup made it 54-41 with 4:34 left.

UH never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.

“Credit Irvine, they’re an elite defensive team,” Ganot said. “I thought our effort was pretty good today, I think in the first half there were defensive lapses, (but) I actually think both teams defended very well. They held us to 35 (percent shooting), and we held them to 38 from the field, (but) I think at the end of the day we weren’t very good finishing around the rim and making free throws (16 of 28, 57 percent) — two things we’d done well in this (three-game winning) stretch.”

Ganot said while the loss was disappointing, he did not want it to spoil the magic of Senior Night.

“I told them, ‘Let this go, and enjoy your Senior Night, because it’s special and it’s rare and you guys are deserving of it,’ ” Ganot said. “There’s no (school) that does it better. I’m so fortunate, I always say I’m blessed to be the coach at Hawai’i, but also for this reason right here. … Our fans stayed for the entire game, the turnout was tremendous, the energy was unbelievable. This place was rocking tonight.”

Fittingly, the biggest ovations were saved for Thomas, Johnson and Buscher.

“We have some special seniors,” Ganot said. “At the end of the day, your legacy is to make things better than you found it, and they made things better. They’ve set us up for the future. … All three are phenomenal in the classroom, great pillars in the community, have helped our program get better, have set up our culture for the future. The young guys on the team (now) know the way that it is supposed to be.”

CLICK HERE to view boxscore

(Game photos courtesy Brandon Flores and Chris Kadooka)

CLICK HERE to view photo gallery

Big West Conference
Saturday’s Results

UC Santa Barbara 82, at CSUN 73
at UC Davis 64, UC Riverside 63
at Cal State Fullerton 81, Long Beach State 71
UC Irvine 66, at Hawai’i 57

12 Comments

  1. If there’s such a thing as an enjoyable loss, this was it.

    From the time Ganot summoned Buscher, heeding to the chants of “We want Buscher!”, to the post-game senior festivities, it was chicken-skin fun. Buscher couldn’t miss, including an out-of-bounds alley-oop pass to Avea that somehow found the bottom of the net instead. Buscher and his teammates could only laugh, and the crowd ate it up.

    Some nice poignant moments during the festivities, highlighted by Thomas’ creative team dunk.

    As for the game, Irvine matched Hawaii’s defensive intensity as Turner and Ganot share a similar philosophy. Irvine was too deep, particularly on the front line where third-string post Greene contributed 6 points (3-for-3 shooting), 6 defensive boards and 1 block in 14 minutes. Hawaii had difficulty running its offense, and several times was forced to cast as the shot clock expired.

    But all the frustration melted away in the final minute of the game, and the post-game celebration.

    An observation: Anteaters will be tough for years to come. They start four sophomores and a junior; and their lone senior was a walk-on/team manager who rarely sees the court. Turner had a bonanza recruiting two years ago, and now has six highly regarded sophomores who play a lot.

  2. I agree Clyde.. the whole Buscher fiasco and senior honoring kinda
    Wiped my frustration away.

    Hawaii truly does have the best fans, and best senior night
    I’ve seen

  3. Eran…besides 7 footers…get athletic gems smalls to fours.. Past times several touted all american JC or D1 transfer talent recruited to Manoa. Have to work that pipeline. Good(all good teams are great defensive teams) coaching.especially the defense and excellent scorers rebounders or one diamond like Anrhony Carter will bring Warriors back to back NIT or NCAA appearances like your mentor Riley Wallace. Bet seniors will get UH to bwc title game for shot to ncaa’s.
    Go Bows!!

    And mahalo Mike for staying through 3 different head coaches.real aloha for Manoa!

  4. Senior Night is out of the way now so no excuses this week. Team have to get that momentum back for Big West tournament.

  5. Why no mop up time for reserve LaCount ?

  6. ^^^ Him and Hemsley are always at the end of the bench and never got any game time this whole year so I think they are both redshirts. Now that you bring it up, it is strange that they wear their game jerseys.

  7. I read that LaCount already has used a red shirt year at Ventura College.
    So, besides Buscher … “We want LaCount … “

  8. Even Matthews and Garrett last year had some minutes.

  9. Chuck, you could be right again. Gary said red shirt, but his bio says he redshirted one year already .

  10. Ganot announced in early December that Hemsley would be redshirting. The kid just turned 18 in October so it was a mutual decision. Dunno about LaCount.

  11. Tonight Ganot said LaCount is a redshirt. Must be some technicality since he redshirted at Ventura apparently too.
    Chuck, internet says a redshirt can practice,travel, dress for games and even warmup before the games. Saw that with some UH QB’s i think too.

  12. Some redshirts did not or do not dress for the game, like Negus, Janks,Mate, etc.

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