Warrior Insider

The Inside Source for Hawaii Men's Basketball

UPDATED: UC Irvine sneaks past Warriors, 68-67, in Big West quarterfinal heartbreaker

ANAHEIM, Calif. — A Big West Conference men’s basketball season in which anything was possible for Hawai’i ended Thursday night, fittingly with a game and final shot that could have gone either way.

Max Hazzard drained a 15-foot pull-up jumper from the left side with 5.5 seconds remaining to lift UC Irvine to a thrilling 68-67 comeback victory over the Warriors in the Big West Conference men’s basketball quarterfinals at the Honda Center.

A stunned crowd of about 3,500 at the Honda Center watched Evan Leonard score a game-high 24 points and Essayu Worku add 18 points as the Anteaters overcame a late 10-point deficit in the final four minutes. After Hazzard’s clutch basket, Brocke Stepteau quickly pushed the ball upcourt and drove into the lane, but his floater fell short off the front of the rim as time expired.

No. 3 seed UC Irvine (17-16) advances to Friday’s semifinal vs. No. 2 seed UC Santa Barbara, while the sixth-seeded Warriors’ season will likely end at 17-13. UH athletic director Dave Matlin told Warrior Insider “there will be a discussion” soon between he and Hawai’i coach Eran Ganot about whether the team would pursue a postseason option such as the College Insider.com Tournament, while cautioning many details would need to be looked at before making a decision either way.

“I think our administration, our staff, they do a great job with making sure we’re prepared for all options,” Ganot said. “We’ll have to look at a lot of factors in regard to how it relates to this group, to UH, there’s a lot of things that go into play with that. Those are kind of the next steps.”

In the meantime, the Warriors and their fans will have much to ponder when reflecting upon Thursday’s heartbreaking loss which easily could have turned out different had one play, or shot, or turnover simply had an alternate result.

“Rough one, tough one, tough finish,” Ganot said. “I’m really proud of our guys, their effort, our heart was tremendous all night long and tremendous all season … I thought we came with a really good game plan, and thought they executed really well — controlled the game for 30 minutes. I think there was a little bit of a microcosim of our season, I talked to the guys … a couple lapses in short times really hurt us, versus the 30 minutes where we’re playing really good basketball against a good defensive team, (one of) the best in the country. I just thought we battled, but those couple lapses in that two-minute stretch, that took no time off the clock … thinking about turnovers, and fouls that put them on the line.”

Senior forward Gibson Johnson scored a career-high 23 points, including 18 in the second half and a go-ahead three-point play with 14.1 seconds remaining, and Mike Thomas added 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds for UH.

The Warriors led 29-26 at halftime and went ahead, 62-52, after Thomas’ monster two-handed slam dunk off of Drew Buggs’ nifty dish with 4:06 remaining. The Anteaters quickly answered with Eyassu Worku’s driving layup and then a 3-pointer from the left corner by Hazzard, cutting the lead in half to 62-57 just 30 seconds later.

After Stepteau swished a floater to push it back to 64-57 with 3:12 left, Leonard sank two free throws at the other end to make it 64-59, and Worku then sank free throws to cut it to 64-61 with 2:26 remaining. After the Warriors lost possession on a held ball against full-court pressure on the ensuing inbounds pass, Worku then banked in a runner from the right side high off the glass to cut it to 64-63 with 1:56 left and scored a layup to give UC Irvine their first lead since late in the first half at 65-64 with 1:07 remaining.

Leonard later sank the first of two free throws to make it 66-64 with 37.1 seconds left, but he missed the second and Johnson converted a three-point play after hitting a layup and was fouled on the spin move.

But Hazzard answered with his game-winner nine seconds later, and Stepteau’s potential game winner fell just short.

Hazzard scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half, and Leonard had 17 of his 24 points after halftime.

“They did a good job of staying aggressive when the game came down to it,” Johnson said. “I missed a show on a screen, that’s one of the ways they got to the hoop. I don’t know, it was just little things like that which piled up.”

All 16 of the Anteaters’ final points in the final 4:35 were scored by guards Hazzard, Worku and Leonard.

“You gotta give them credit, I think we clearly wanted to do a good job on their interior, and I thought we did a pretty good job on their backcourt,” Ganot said. “But they got loose, whether it was point-of-attack, one-on-one drives, close-out drives or ball screens, which is also a point-of-attack deal where maybe our show wasn’t where it needed to be, and to their dominant hands. So at that point, it was a lapse at point of attack, and one of the things we had been really good at was floor position, stepping in and helping each other, taking charges … and we were a bit of a step behind there, and they took advantage of it.”

The first half was a different story, as Hawai’i displayed stingy halfcourt defense and dictated tempo well enough to turn a 24-21 deficit into the 29-26 halftime lead, with Thomas’ sneaky reverse layup capped an 8-2 run just before the intermission horn.

The Warriors then continued that momentum into the second half, eventually building the lead to 62-52 after Thomas’ emphatic slam dunk with 4:06 remaining.

But instead of serving as a nail in the coffin, it proved to be the game’s turning point as the Anteaters quickly moved the ball up the court and scored on Worku’s driving layup just eight seconds later. Then came Hazzard’s 3-pointer from the left corner just 21 seconds after that. Stepteau’s floater temporarily stopped the bleeding, but those would be UH’s only points over the next two minutes. Leonard and Worku each made two free throws — UC Irvine converted 17 of its first 19 free throws (89.5 percent) before Worku’s miss with 37 seconds left — to close it to 64-61, and then the Warriors turned the ball over on the ensuing inbounds possession.

Worku made them pay with his high-arching driving layup off the glass to make it 64-63 with 1:56 remaining, and then Worku grabbed a missed 3-pointer by Hawai’i and quickly passed to Leonard for yet another driving layup, this one in transition and giving the Anteaters the lead.

Buggs, who finished with seven points, six assists, four steals, and three rebounds, fouled out with 37 seconds remaining and the Warriors trailing, 65-64.

Although the Warriors’ eventually took the lead back with 14.1 seconds on Johnson’s three-point play, the script held true as UC Irvine quickly found Hazzard with a crosscourt skip pass, and Hazzard evaded a defender and pulled up for the jumper near the left elbow.

“We’ve been in a lot of close games, we just haven’t won them, but tonight we won one,” Anteaters coach Russell Turner said. “I told the team before the game, it would not be an upset if Hawai’i were to beat us. They are good, they’re a good team. They are veteran, and their veterans tonight, Thomas and Gibson Johnson, their performances were what you would expect seniors to do in conference tournament situations. We don’t have any seniors, so our other guys have to step up. Our three guards, Eyassu, Evan and Max, were outstanding for us … tonight Hawai’i’s big guys severely outplayed ours, but we were still able to win. We have to feel somewhat fortunate to have won that game. We know that.”

The drastic shift in the game’s final four minutes, including Stepteau’s potential game-winner falling an inch or two short, did draw comparison to the Warriors’ Big West season itself — characterized by the mathematical oddity of beating every team in the league, and also losing to every team in the league. A season that went back-and-forth, teetering at dead even, but ultimately falling just shy of the winning side of the ledger.

“There was a poem that (assistant) Coach (Adam) Jacobsen read to us earlier this year,” Thomas said. “Basically about performance, like ‘Coach, get off my back — it was just one play, it was just one stop, just one free throw … if you look back, that’s kind of what’s been on my mind — we lost by one point … that’s the feeling I have right now, a little heartbroken … but I’m also proud of how we played tonight, how hard we played. We proved we’re better than a six seed. It’s just tough.”

Ganot agreed, but said the fragility and accountability of college basketball is also its appeal.

“That’s the way it works, I’ve always said that’s what makes this game great, that’s what makes life great, it gives you such highs and lows,” Ganot said. “There’s no guarantees … you do everything you can to put yourself in the best position to succeed. But every team goes through that, and there’s some things in this game that came back to bite us. The hardest thing in life is living with regret, and sometimes you have to, and you wish you had it back but you don’t get it back. But certainly it’s how you approach things, whether it’s in a game or over the course of the season, or in life — how you live and learn from it.

“I think we have a special group of guys who will learn and grow, and they have all year.”

CLICK HERE to view boxscore

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

CLICK HERE to view photo gallery

Thursday’s Quarterfinal Results
No. 1 UC Davis 70, No. 8 UC Riverside 66
No. 4 Cal State Fullerton 76, No. 5 Long Beach State 74
No. 3 UC Irvine 68, No. 6 Hawai’i 67
No. 2 UC Santa Barbara 75, No. 7 Cal Poly 53

Friday’s Semifinals Results
Cal State Fullerton 55, UC Davis 52
UC Irvine 61, UC Santa Barbara 58

Saturday’s Championship Game
Cal State Fullerton vs. UC Irvine, 7:00 p.m. (Hawai’i time)


  1. Still appreciate the super hard effort of Mike, Gibson and Brocke. Mike and Brocke and Zach stuck it out due to love of Hawaii through 3 different coaches and styles of coaching. Eran, he knows it, has to recruit the type of athletes that dominated BWC and got historic first NCAA tourney win in UH history. that AV, and company blend, and Q mentality battlers with hoops skill.
    We know how hard it is to recruit to Hawaii. One AC Carter type can lead UH team to back to back NIT, shared BWC regular season or outright championship title. Now headed to year 4. Ganot has to get talent that will win BWC title every year. For a couple years prior, we got spoiled. Eran, Matlin has your support, now you have to get out and recruit some gems for next year. Besides those 3 seven footers, some superior athletes who can defend and score, .. that will be a test !

    Mahalo Mike, Brocke , Zach and Gibson and team for playing so hard these past few years ! True UH warriors, wish you all the best in future endeavors!
    Matlin, NO PAY for Play tournaments, waste of UH and state monies, unless other step up to foot bills..
    Recruiting time , for UH Manoa was always a very exciting time, Now step up the recruiting, to help Drew and company !

  2. As for power rankings, SOS, RPI etc, remember only 15 out of UH’s 17 wins counted towards those ratings/rankings. 2 of UH’s wins were against DII opponents. so Real big boy record was 15-12. Still winning record, However. UH competition in BWC we thought as fans, UH would dominate, I guess previous 2 coaches did to. Eran, has to win Regular and BWC tournament championships to make hurt go away for loyal UH hoop fans for past 2 years !
    Go and search for those, diamonds Eran, be a man on a mission, You got the defensive adjustment chops in coaching, and the demeanor, and Good kids, now get the Great talent, !!

  3. Sorry , my bad, UH counting for RPI, SOS, BPI, ratings/ rankings.. the real deal ones, UH record recognized at end of first round loss in BWC tourney.. UH finishes at 15-13.. the 2 wins against Div 2 opponents , are not counted, towards UH record books yes..
    Cannot criticize the effort of these guys after, Aaron and Quincy, etc, left,.. those guys were together for several years and Peaked when Eran took over job first year. Eran recruit those type of guys, You will be going to NIT or NCAAs every year !
    Go Bows !!

  4. That was probably the toughest game loss I’ve ever seen.

    Kinda reminded me of the tough loss of 2014 against Csun
    In the final minutes, while we were ahead.

    You can’t blame it on one guy, and it’s not like Irvine is a bad
    Team. Hawaii got dealt a tough first match, with one of the best
    Defenses in the country.

    I think this is going to give the guys fuel this summer to work on their game
    and work on their mind and body. As coach said the future is bright indeed.

    Tough loss.. but this should make these guys hungry to better their game this
    Summer! Looking forward to next year!!

    Go Bows!!

  5. No CIT this year, per Matlin and Ganot.

  6. Tough, tough loss but they played hard and took probably their worst-case matchup to the wire. Figured if UH had beaten Irvine, it would have had an easier time against Davis (which just lost to Fullerton).

    Oh well, mahalo to the seniors and particularly to Gibson, who saved his best for last. Great character guys; they’ll be missed. Thanks Dayton and Wes for making the trip and providing coverage all season. Of course, mahalo to the Schmidt ohana, too.

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