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Warriors aim for ‘three-peat’ vs. UC Davis at Big West Tournament

Heading into Thursday night’s Big West Tournament quarterfinal matchup against UC Davis, the University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team will know at least two things for certain: 1.) The “crowd” will not be a factor, and 2.) any Warrior who shoots a last-second 3-pointer from the left corner of the court will not be wide open.

“We just lost two games to Hawai’i on left-corner 3’s,” Aggies coach Jim Les said during Monday’s media conference call, “so this time, we’re just going to leave a guy there to guard that spot all game long.”

Les was probably speaking only partly in jest.

The Warriors stunned UC Davis, 76-75, on Jan. 25 after Eddie Stansberry capped a 10-point comeback with a 3-pointer from the left corner with 3.3 seconds remaining. Then on March 5, Hawai’i broke the Aggies’ heart again as Samuta Avea drained the go-ahead 3-pointer from almost the same spot with 3.8 ticks on the clock as the Warriors overcame a 13-point deficit in the final four-plus minutes to win, 67-65.

While some fans debate whether “it is hard to beat the same team three times” or “you want to play a team you already beat twice,” UH coach Eran Ganot said he basically discounts the “three-peat” factor.

“Right now, it’s a one-game deal,” Ganot said during an ESPN Honolulu radio interview Monday afternoon, “and that’s really all that matters.”

That may especially be true for Thursday’s 5:30 p.m. (Hawai’i time) quarterfinal game at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., which — like all other tournament games — will be played with no spectators in the stands but streamed live nationally on ESPN3 (and broadcast live via radio on ESPN Honolulu). That makes it even more of a toss-up at a neutral site, as the Warriors will not benefit from its usual large cheering section that they counted on in past tournaments.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing that we won’t be able to play in front of our tremendous fans, our band, cheerleaders and dancers who always travel so well in support of us,” Ganot said in a school statement. “Right now, we are only concerned with what we can control. Despite the unique situation, our focus will continue to be on preparing for the tournament and putting forward the best performance we can.”

UC Davis (14-18) certainly deserves UH’s full attention, as it built substantial leads late in both prior meetings.

The Aggies are unique in that they often present the shortest lineup in the conference, with four guards and 6-foot-7 Kennedy Koehler starting at center against the Warriors (17-13) on March 5.

Les said the decision on whom to start is based more on performance than height.

“As a staff, we always try to put our guys in a position to be successful,” Les said. “Sometimes we get caught up in size, but we like to (start) the guys who are playing the best. If they’re playing well, we want to get them on the floor. Also, I think our players have bought into the small (lineup) mentality.”

The Aggies emerged as one of the best shooting teams during the Big West regular season. They lead the league in 3-pointers (8.9 per game), 3-point percentage (.424) and free throw percentage (.797).

UC Davis guard Ezra Manjon, the Big West Freshman of the Year, displayed success in the two losses to Hawai’i. He averaged 20.0 points, 5.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game against the Warriors. Overall, Manjon is averaging 12.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game.

The Aggies’ primary 3-point threats are senior guards Stefan Gonzalez (83 3-pointers at a .477 percentage) and Joe Mooney (66 3-pointers at a .377 percentage).

For Ganot, he is confident his team can make the adjustment without much drop-off.

“The good thing about us is we can play big, and we can play small,” Ganot said. “We have the ability to play big or small, so you’re going to see us go back and forth as the game dictates.”

The Warriors have been playing “small” recently, utilizing a starting lineup of guards Stansberry, Drew Buggs and Justin Webster, alongside 6-6 forward Avea and 6-9 center Zigmars Raimo. They also have 6-6 Justin Hemsley, 6-9 Bernardo da Silva and 7-footers Dawson Carper, Mate Colina and Owen Hulland available in reserve.

Both coaches also are proud of their respective teams for their resiliency — Ganot noted that Hawai’i has won six of its games after trailing with five minutes left, while Les said his players have remained positive throughout a tough up-and-down season.

“These guys have a willingness to get knocked down and come back,” Les said. “They keep fighting.”

Ganot said while he doesn’t necessarily enjoy falling behind late in games, he gives his players credit for their tenacity.

“It’s tough that we put ourselves into that position, but our guys are fighters, they scrap and they play with pride,” Ganot said. “I don’t think it’s a recipe for my health or their health, but it is nice to know that they will keep fighting until the end.”

Strategically, Ganot said the re-emergence of Avea (18 points at UC Davis on March 5, and 20 points at CSUN on March 7) comes at an ideal time. The athletic and sharp-shooting forward missed five games earlier this season due to a back injury, but has returned to supplement the outside shooting of guards Stansberry and Webster.

“Teams have been keying on Eddie and Webster, but it’s hard to key on three guys (on the perimeter),” Ganot said. “That makes us a tough cover.”

Stansberry leads Hawai’i in scoring at 15.9 points per game, and also ranks second in the Big West with 90 3-pointers. Avea is averaging 10.8 points per game and has 39 3-pointers; Webster is at 8.8 points per game with 38 3-pointers.

Both coaches said the teams’ familiarity with each other is a factor, but changes are to be expected with the higher stakes of the Big West Tournament.

“Everybody is going to have their wrinkles in their back pocket,” Ganot said. “Our goal is just being very prepared.”

Les said the Aggies’ motivation will not come so much from vengeance against the Warriors, but rather the universal goal of winning the automatic NCAA Tournament berth that goes to the Big West champion.

“There’s adjustments we’re going to make, and they are going to make adjustments, too,” Les said. “Each game is a learning tool to prepare for the what to expect next time around. I’d be worried if we’re looking for motivation at this point. With the magnitude of this tournament, and what winning it leads to, that should be more than enough motivation.”

Said Ganot: “It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”

No. 4 HAWAI’I (17-13, 8-8) vs. No. 5 UC DAVIS (14-18, 8-8)
What:
 Big West Conference Championship Tournament
When: Thursday, March 12, 8:30 p.m. Pacific (5:30 p.m. Hawai’i)
Where: Honda Center (18,336) – Anaheim, Calif.
Television: ESPN3
Streaming video: WatchESPN.com / ESPN App
Radio: ESPN Honolulu (1420 AM / 92.7 FM), KRKH (Maui), KPUA (Hawai’i Island), and KTOH (Kaua’i).
Audio webcast: ESPNHonolulu.com / Sideline Hawaii App
Coaches: Head coach Eran Ganot is in his fifth season at UH (86-56). Jim Les is in his ninth season at UC Davis (134-153) and 17th season overall (268-293).
Series Information: UH leads, 11-6.


1 Comment

  1. Rainbow Warriors!!!!!!!!!

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