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UPDATED: Warriors hold off Rhode Island, 68-60, for fifth place in Diamond Head Classic

Putting business before pleasure even on the biggest holiday of the year, Hawai’i fought through Yuletide distractions and a tough challenge from visiting Rhode Island before holding off the Rams, 68-60, for fifth place in the 10th Annual Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

A sparse-but-spirited Christmas morning crowd of about 2,200 watched Zigmars Raimo score a career-high 19 points and grab six rebounds, and Drew Buggs add 12 points and eight boards as the Warriors improved to 8-5 with their second straight victory. Brocke Stepteau and Eddie Stansbery each contributed 11 points, with Stansberry scoring all of his 11 in the second half. Jeff Dowtin scored 17 points and Cyril Langevin added 11 points for the Rams, who fell to 6-5.

“Great win, over a really good team, a really good program,” UH coach Eran Ganot said. “This is a Rhode Island program that’s been to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, very well coached, won at West Virginia … We knew it was going to be a battle, (against) one of the best defensive teams in the country, third straight game playing against a really good rebounding team. (We) saw some dynamic guards, some great inside play … really proud of our team also for fighting through some adversity even within the game, and again, executing really well late. All that leads to a great moment for our guys.”

In an intensely tight game throughout — despite an early 10:20 a.m. tipoff — UH led 34-32 at halftime and finally took the lead for good at 52-51 on Stansberry’s 3-pointer with 6:20 remaining and eventually went up 59-53 after two free throws by Stepteau with 4:08 to go. Rhode Island closed it to 60-58 on Christian Thompson’s fadeaway bank shot from eight feet out with 2:23 left, but Stepteau drove in for a layup off from a tricky angle on the right side to make it 62-58 with 54.6 seconds remaining and Stansberry converted all four of his free throw attempts down the stretch to seal the victory

“It was a big win for us, you could feel that in the locker room after the game,” said Stepteau, who also finished with three rebounds, three assists and one steal with no turnovers in 35 minutes off the bench. “It was a good team we played today, they had been to the (NCAA) Tournament previously, so we knew the task we had before the game and we wanted to come out and bring intensity. We knew it was going to be a tough game, it always feels good when you can get a closeout win like that, a close game situation. So it’s a big win for us.”

The Rams jumped out to a 7-2 lead in the first three minutes, but the Warriors quickly responded with an 8-2 run capped by Stepteau’s floater to put Hawai’i ahead, 10-9, with 14:14 remaining in the first half. Rhode Island quickly took the lead back on Fatts Russell’s 15-foot jumper and eventually went up, 25-17, after a 14-5 surge culminating in two free throws by Russell with 6:17 left. But the Warriors closed out the half with a 17-7 run capped by Jack Purchase’s 3-pointer from the left wing just before the halftime horn.

“It all started with defense,” said Raimo, who finished the tournament with 30 rebounds in three games. “Defense was nails, and once we started making our shots, we took the lead.”

The teams basically traded baskets for the first 13 minutes of the second half, and the Rams took their final lead at 51-49 on Dowtin’s 3-pointer with 6:41 remaining. But Stansberry answered with his 3-pointer just 21 seconds later, and Purchase followed with a putback with 5:47 left to give UH some breathing room at 55-51.

Stepteau later stretched the lead to 59-53 with his layup at the 4:08 mark, and at that point, Ganot said, the team’s confidence was essentially cemented.

“A lot of times in huddles late, we’ll say, ‘Hey, this is what we live for … we love this,’ ” Ganot said. “Today, with about four minutes to go, Eddie Stansberry, who is normally fairly even-keeled and stoic, started talking about, ‘Hey, we’ve been in this situation just the other (day), and we should have a lot of confidence in this stretch.’ … At the end of the day, a lot of execution comes back to guard play late, and to have guys like Brocke, a fifth-year senior who’s made big plays, big decisions, and Drew Buggs who is a sophomore in his third year with the program, it’s a great feeling of confidence, for sure.”

Ganot, Stepteau and Raimo said the struggles against quick, athletic teams like North Texas, Seton Hall, Fresno State and UCLA earlier in the season proved to be learning experiences that eventually helped the Warriors successfully compete against Colorado on Sunday and Rhode Island on Tuesday.

“Definitely — we played against really good teams, against different coverages, different defenses,” Raimo said. “It’s helping us so much. I think this season (has had) ups and downs, (but) it’s good right now at this point … we are right where we can be, and where this team is capable to be. It just feels great that our guys know what they’re doing, and they’re confident and we’re just playing our basketball.”

Stepteau said the losses earlier in the season made Hawai’i “battled-tested.”

“It’s good to play games like that, even if you don’t come out on top,” Stepteau said. “You learn from the mistakes, you learn from the things that didn’t go well. It’s going to help you in the long run, and I think that came to fruition today and against Colorado as well. Just learning from everything — those games, we didn’t come out on top in some of those, but that got us ready, and I think it’s helped us out a lot.”

Ganot agreed the tough non-conference season has paid dividends, but only because the players learned from the defeats.

“Experience — good and bad — helps you, and I think some of the things we did earlier in the year helped us today,” Ganot said. “We’ve played, I think, six Top 100 or Top 75 non-conference opponents, and I don’t think our program has done that in a while. And I think it helped us here in this tournament, because we had quick turnarounds against size and pressure, but we’ve seen some of that. (But) at the end of the day, it’s only good if you use it right, because we’ve all seen teams that have laid an egg … How you handle failure and how you handle success, both (are) equally as important. We have some confidence, and some guys getting key reps at key times that happened during this whole non-conference (season) thus far.”

With the victory, the early Christmas morning start also paid dividends by allowing the players to enjoy the rest of the holiday with their family members visiting from as far away as Latvia (Raimo’s parents) and Australia (Purchase’s family and Mate Colina’s family).

“Playing a great game on Christmas Day is unbelievable,” Ganot said. “The (10:20) start is tough, but at least they get the rest of the day to enjoy their loved ones. Our guys are far from home … but the families usually come for a stretch like this. Is there anything better than that — to compete and then enjoy your time with your loved ones?”

Raimo averaged 13.3 points and 10.0 rebounds per game in the three games of the Diamond Head Classic and was one of five players selected to the All-Tournament Team.

Hawai’i’s next game is scheduled for Saturday, when the Warriors host Alabama A&M at 7:00 p.m. at the Sheriff Center. It will be the last scheduled non-conference game of the season, with Big West Conference action set to start on January 9.

CLICK HERE to view boxscore

(Game photos courtesy Brandon Flores and Chris Kadooka)

CLICK HERE to view photo gallery

— — —

TCU takes the title

TCU, led by former University of Hawai’i assistant coach Jamie Dixon, defeated Indiana State, 83-69, in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic.

The Horned Frogs went 3-0 in the tournament to improve to 11-1 overall. They won their three games in the Diamond Head Classic by an average margin of 18.7 points per game. Alex Robinson had 15 points, eight rebounds and four assists to lead TCU. Robinson also set a new Diamond Head Classic record of 26 assists in the three games, and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Dixon was an assistant at UH under Riley Wallace in the 1990s. He had a long and successful stint as head coach at Pittsburgh before taking over as head coach at TCU in 2016.

Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic
Tuesday’s Results

7th Place: Colorado 68, Charlotte 53
5th Place: Hawai’i 68 Rhode Island 60
3rd Place: Bucknell 97, UNLV 72
Championship: TCU 83, Indiana State 69

All-Tournament Team
Zigmars Raimo, Hawai’i
Nate Sestina, Bucknell
Jordan Barnes, Indiana State
Jaylen Fisher, TCU
MVP: Alex Robinson, TCU

2019 Diamond Head Classic teams
Ball State
Boise State
Georgia Tech
Hawai’i
Houston
Portland
UTEP
Washington

2 Comments

  1. This team showed a lot of heart. They’re gaining a lot of confidence with these wins.
    You want to be playing your best basketball heading into conference.
    They have some things to work on, but I think they’ll be ready for conference play
    When it comes

  2. I have to admit I did not think this UH team would go 2-1 in this tournament, especially with a win over Colorado. These guys really are starting to jell together and that makes them tough. I missed this last win against Rhode Island on ESPN because of getting ready for Christmas parties and stuff. Did the announcers say good things about UH?

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