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Warriors use ‘double-bye’ week to improve in practice

Finding and embracing a silver lining from the latest dark cloud of COVID-19, the University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team took the lemon of a canceled Big West Conference opening series and turned it into lemonade to fuel its improvement.

After quickly getting over the initial disappointment of scheduled home games against Cal Poly on Dec. 27 and 28, the Warriors went right back to the practice gym and looked for ways to sharpen their axe internally.

“Since our last game (on Dec. 19), I definitely think we’ve been moving the ball a lot better,” said co-captain Justin Webster, a sophomore guard. “Our last practice (on Sunday) was our best practice for the ‘Green’ (first) group, we really moved the ball, really shared the ball, (and) it resulted in a lot of easy baskets and open shots. So with these last couple weeks of practices building into our first conference games, I feel like our chemistry has gotten a lot better and now we just gotta put it on the court.”

That next court opportunity is scheduled to come at 2 p.m. (Hawaii time) Friday at UC Riverside — knocking on hardwood. But in these most unpredictable times, Webster and his teammates are taking nothing for granted.

“When we leave on that flight on Wednesday, we can be like, OK, we actually might be playing,” Webster said. “And then as soon as we step on that court (Friday), we’ll know that it’s real.”

Two weeks ago, the Warriors (2-0) had been similarly fine-tuning for their scheduled league opener when word came about 48 hours prior to tipoff that Cal Poly was canceling its trip due to a COVID issue within the program.

“We had just finished practice, we all kind of left and went back to our homes, and then we received a text hours later saying the Cal Poly games were canceled,” Webster said. “We were all kind of devastated, frustrated. Coach (Eran Ganot) told us that things like this may be happening during the season, but we weren’t prepared for it to happen (in) our first series.

“But we stayed in the gym, Coach kept us mentally motivated, so he did a good job on that. Coach always tries to keep us motivated throughout the week, whether our games are canceled or not. He said we should expect this, seeing that UC Davis isn’t able to play right now, CSUN hasn’t been able to play, and Cal Poly. So he said we should expect this, but we gotta keep doing our part, keep getting better and keep preparing for our next game.”

After Hawai’i’s 89-66 victory over UH Hilo on Dec. 19, Ganot had said the Warriors still needed more practice time to catch up on things, and this unexpected “double-bye” week unexpectedly provided just that. 

“It’s all about perspective and taking advantage of whatever opportunity we have,” Ganot said on Monday. “If we were playing more games, that would have been great, (but) if we have more practices, that’s great. So that’s kind of the approach we’ve had. We’ve had a good stretch, we spoke a couple weeks ago about getting more consistent practices with more of our guys, (and) it’s been that way going into the last couple weeks. But (now) I feel like we got that.

“We didn’t have as many games as I would have liked, but I feel like we got more reps and cleaned up a lot of things.”

In the month prior to the Hilo game, UH was still trying to build chemistry and cohesiveness between seven newcomers and six returnees, with some members of both groups missing significant practice time due to injuries. 

“I know there was a stretch when you combine all of that with finals week, but they did a great job in the classroom, shifted gears and since then it’s just been us and hoops,” Ganot said. “They’ve done a really nice job. There’s guys like Bernardo (da Silva) who are further along than he was. To be honest, we’d rather play games, but we had zero control over it, so we shift gears in terms of getting the guys more practice and we’ve had to simulate game situations to the best of our ability. And the competition has been really good.”

Ganot said the leadership of veterans like Webster and even some transfers has been crucial in navigating the team through this season’s rough and unchartered waters.

“Everyone talks about (our) seven newcomers, but three of those guys are Division I players who played roles and two are junior college transfers,” Ganot said. “We have a returning group led by our captains, Webster and Casdon (Jardine), and other fourth-year guys like Mate (Colina) and (Justin) Hemsley who have helped our guys stay together. It’s been a challenge, but a great challenge, and we live for challenges. I’m proud of the guys, (because) it’s a different kind of ‘battled-tested,’ it’s about staying together in a COVID world, and hopefully finishing the season strong.”

Photo of Jordan Webster courtesy www.gohighlanders.com

For Webster, the support extends to and from his sister Jordan, a freshman starting guard for UC Riverside who is averaging 10.4 points and 3.8 rebounds through five games.

“Even though she’s my little sister, she teaches me a lot,” Webster said. “I just try to stay in her head, keep her mentally strong. Their games got canceled and she would get frustrated, so I just told her you just gotta stick to work and keep doing what you’re doing. We talk every day — I’m always there for her, and she’s always there for me. So being able to go there, I won’t be able to see her, but just being in the same environment as her, that will be something special.”

Webster said in the meantime, he’s been trying to support his fellow Warriors with a similar refrain:

“We may not always know why things are going, but we can only control what we can control,” Webster said. “That’s really been my message to my teammates: Just control what we can control, and keep getting better each and every day.”

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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