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Warriors at UC Riverside for long-awaited Big West opener

Perhaps never has a University of Hawai’i men’s basketball conference opener been so elusive, or so eagerly anticipated as Friday’s 2 p.m. Big West tangle at UC Riverside.

The Warriors’ first two attempts – back-to-back home games vs. Cal Poly scheduled for Dec. 27 and 28 – were canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Mustangs’ program. That Christmas Day announcement allowed UH (2-0) to turn its attention toward its first road trip and Friday’s “new” opener against the Highlanders (3-1). 

The game at SRC Arena on the UCR campus will be streamed live via BigWest.TV and broadcast live via radio on ESPN1420AM.

“Sometimes we’ve had bye weeks, but I’ve never seen a break like this where we have 20 days between games after we’ve already had breaks due to (other) cancellations,” Hawai’i coach Eran Ganot said. “But it’s the nature of the beast this year, it’s the reality of our situation, so I think the big thing is for our guys to continue to be locked in and prepared for whatever it is that comes our way.”

Sophomore co-captain Justin Webster said the Warriors feel more than ready after such a long wait.

“It definitely was a mental challenge for all of us when the first couple of games were canceled — just being on the court, practicing, wondering if we’re going to play this coming week,” Webster said. “But for the past week, for the most part, our attitude has been well, we just strung together a couple good/great practices. So the energy level is going to be through the roof this week, and I expect us to be running on all cylinders. I believe we’ll be ready to play this week.”

The challenge certainly is a formidable one, despite UH winning four of its past five games at Riverside. This year’s Highlanders have won three straight games after dropping their season opener to Pacific, 66-60. Their first victory was an impressive 57-42 triumph at Washington, followed by road victories at Denver (83-63) and Northern Arizona (74-50).

Friday’s game vs. Hawai’i will be UCR’s home opener and its first game of any kind since Dec.10.

“Riverside has had a similar long break to ours, but they have more Division I games under their belt,” Ganot said. “They’re one of the teams in our league which has returned quite of bit (of players), and you can see that with the start they’re on. Winning at Washington is not an easy task, as we all know. They’re one of the biggest teams in our league, one of the elite rebounding teams this year — they’re plus-9 already. They’ve shot it really well, they have an inside-out attack, and they have good experience.”

By contrast, the Warriors have seven newcomers trying to blend in with six returnees, and their only two games have been home victories against Division II in-state rivals Hawai’i Pacific and UH-Hilo.

But Ganot said he is counting on his team to continue the road success it has had in past years, despite the addition of COVID protocols this season.

“Whether we are traveling or whether we are here, it’s pretty similar, there’s a lot more protocols in place,” Ganot said. “We’re pretty organized, and even more so now. A big part of being successful on the road is traveling well, and we’re going to continue to do that, even with the wrinkles of a COVID world. It’s even more so limited (now) — you’re leaving campus, getting to the airport and the flight, you’re going to the hotel, and you’re basically going to be in the hotel. You’re going to get your meal, bring it back to your room, you’re going to go to practice, and that’s about it.”

“I will say we’ve had a lot of time to prepare for this first road trip, we’ve had a lot more collaboration with our medical team and our administration in making sure our guys are as safe as possible. It’s always been collaborative, I think we have a very sound plan that we’ve had to adjust over the years, and now we’re just making some wrinkles to that plan to adjust to this COVID world.” 

Ganot said the strict but attentive protocols followed within the state and UH athletic department has been an inspiration. For example, Hawai’i’s football team was one of only a handful out of 130 in the nation to actually complete its entire eight-game regular season schedule without any cancellations.

“Everybody is in play, and we all have to make the ultimate sacrifice,” Ganot said. “Every day, I follow the cases locally and nationally, and I remind our guys that we’ve done a great job so far, but … one (COVID) issue could affect your entire program, and other programs. It started March 12, and here we are in the first week of January, and the message is the same: Continue to stay vigilant and responsible. I’m really proud because it starts with the student-athletes, you gotta give them a ton of credit to this point for the way they’ve behaved responsibly.

“But they’re certainly being put in a great situation to succeed by the university and our athletic department, I couldn’t thank them (enough) or show more appreciation for that.”       

Another wrinkle the Warriors will need to adjust to is playing conference games against the same opponent on consecutive nights, both at home and on the road. UH and UCR will run it back again at 2 p.m. Saturday, instead of meeting again later in Honolulu as usual.

Webster said one way Hawai’i can adapt to that change is by relying on different players the second night, which would make the Warriors harder to game plan for and defend.

“It’s something we have talked about a lot,” Webster said. “Somebody each night is going to win us a game — it might be me, or whether it be (Justin) Hemsley, or Casdon (Jardine), or whether it be (Junior) Madut … Somebody else each night is going to win us a game. Playing those back-to-back games are tough, especially playing the same team twice, so we have to make sure we’re locked in on all details from Game 1 to Game 2.” 

Although the Cal Poly series cancellation and resulting 20-day break between games was tough to endure, there was hope provided on Monday with the announcement of a modified NCAA Tournament featuring all games played in the state of Indiana. It was welcome news given the uncertain times, and provides a solid carrot for UH to chase.

“We’re always trying to find some motivation throughout the week, because it has been hard on us as student-athletes, wondering whether we’re going to play or not,” Webster said. “So just seeing things that the NCAA puts out, or the Big West, keeps us motivated and keeps us in the right state of mind to be ready for the games ahead.”

Ganot, who guided Hawai’i to its most recent NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016, said the announcement was refreshing.

“Anything like that continues to give a good message you can send to your guys,” Ganot said. “There’s a date, March 14, set for Selection Sunday … You don’t like them to think too far ahead, but you want them to see that plans are being made for something so special, and then you go back and lock in. We gotta continue to evolve, we gotta continue to stay locked into the moment and control what we can control. We’ve had a couple games canceled, but hopefully we can get every game (going forward) under our belt. Maybe we won’t, but we’ve got to expect and be prepared for every scenario, and to this point we’ve done a good job with that.”

The last time the Warriors were on the road was March 12, 2020, an infamous date when not only the Big West Tournament was canceled but so was the rest of college basketball for the season. Ganot said it has been a long and arduous journey from then to today, but one his team can find pride in.

“From Day 1, it’s all about people, in good times and bad times our biggest commodity and our best competitive advantage is the character of the people in our program,” Ganot said. “That’s our players, our student-athletes, our staff, our support staff, our administration. We’re all going through this together. Here we are in early January, and we started this on March 12 (2020) and we’ve stayed together. In terms of what we can control, in terms of staying together, supporting each other, I couldn’t be prouder of the entire group.”

HAWAI’I at UC RIVERSIDE
When: Friday, Jan. 8 (2:00 pm HT/4:00 pm PT) & Saturday, Jan. 9 (2:00 pm HT/4:00 pm PT)
Where: SRC Arena â€“ Riverside, Calif.
Television: None
Streaming Video: BigWest.TV 
Radio: Live on ESPN Honolulu (1420 AM/92.7 FM), KRKH (Maui), KPUA (Hawai’i Island), and KTOH (Kaua’i)
Audio Webcast: ESPNHonolulu.com/Sideline Hawai’i App.
Live Stats: GoHighlanders.com

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