This kind of finish to the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic did not seem especially likely a few days ago.
Yet Hawaii went from merely salvaging a game in its premiere tournament to putting together — on the fly — the kind of run that could last well into conference play.
A 68-60 defeat of Rhode Island of the Atlantic 10 on Christmas lent credence to the notion that UH’s overtime upset of Colorado was no fluke two days prior. All that after UH appeared down and out after its 14-point loss to UNLV in the DHC opening round on Saturday, having to turn around and play a Pac-12 team with an 8-2 record on Sunday.
“To string a couple wins together … against good teams, I think we got some momentum,” said guard Brocke Stepteau after coming off the bench to help close out yet another game. “We’re going to close out with our last nonconference game coming up (Saturday vs. Alabama A&M), and then get ready for conference. It’s a great time to have some momentum right before conference. We just gotta get to work after Christmas to keep it going.
“We don’t want this to be the highlight of our season.”
— #BigWestMBB (@BigWestMBB) December 25, 2018
For the moment, though, highlight is the operative word. UH had the poise and precision to close out the back-and-forth game against a team that won the A-10 in 2017-18. Some of the same cast that stepped up big against Colorado did it again. Stepteau, Zigmars Raimo, Drew Buggs, Jack Purchase and Eddie Stansberry supplied the plays in the final five or six minutes that allowed UH (8-5) to improve to 7-3 in DHC Christmas games.
Two sequences of superb passing defined the win. In the final seconds of first half, Stepteau nearly lost the ball driving into the paint. He flipped it back out to Samuta Avea as he fell to the floor. Avea had the presence of mind to swing it to Purchase in the corner — and the Aussie obliged, getting the ball out of his hand a split-second before the buzzer and making the 3.
Then, with under 10 minutes left in the game and the teams still swapping the lead seemingly every other basket, Buggs threw one deep to Raimo, who jumped for it and in the same motion dumped it off to a cutting Stansberry for a three-point play. That helped get the team’s leading scorer going after he’d missed his first seven shots.
“It always starts with the defense and the boards,” said Zigmars Raimo, who set a new career high of 19 points a game after grabbing a personal best of 17 rebounds. “They had pretty good bigs and the guards were helping bigs to grab rebounds, so rebounds were tied (between the teams). But it showed on the floor that we were helping each other and that’s why we won the game. We played together. Even if we can’t make our shots, if our shooters, it’s not their night … we still are together, we still are trusting each other and just keep battling. And that’s how we won.”
Stansberry’s next hoop, with 6:22 left, was a 3 for the go-ahead points.
Even Leland Green had a throwback moment, a strong take to the cup when the game was a toss-up in crunch time.
Maybe some of it was the Christmas mojo, but it all was pretty surreal given what transpired to open the eight-team tournament.
“I know we met that night (after UNLV), because it was a quick turnaround,” UH coach Eran Ganot said. “I think you could tell — I’ve talked to you guys over the years, when you’re in a huddle with two minutes to go and you can see the look in their eyes. I know it sounds corny. Or you can hear them talk. All the coaches want to be the voice, Mr. Coach, but our best teams will be when you can feel their spirit, when you can see the talk. Listen to Drew Buggs’ emergence, and his talk in the huddle. Brocke Stepteau. We have a lot of returners, so I think that night, the way we responded in the meeting, and then the next practice in the walkthrough, it felt pretty good. And we’re going to feel pretty good, because we felt that was within our group. But they led the charge, and it was great to see.”
In some ways, it felt like the opposite of the Wooden Legacy — UH opened that with a quality win over Utah, then stumbled against Seton Hall and Fresno State.
Closing out the DHC in that fashion took on some extra meaning for several of the players who had family in the stands.
Stepteau’s parents, Torrence and Kristi, flew in from Dallas and saw their son stick another layup against much larger defenders in a tight game. That made it 62-58 with a minute left and put the Rams (6-5) into foul-taking mode.
“It means everything,” Stepteau said. “That’s the guy who taught me a lot of the things that helps me in those types of situations. Having him in the crowd, my last Diamond Head game, that’s everything. For my whole family to be here means a lot.”
The same went for Raimo, whose parents Edmunds and Iveta traveled from Madona, Latvia for the tournament.
“My parents are here for the first time in my college career,” Raimo said. “That means a lot to me, and I just wanted to play as best as I can. I know a lot of families are here; Mate (Colina’s), Owen (Hulland’s), Brocke’s, Jack (Purchase’s). A lot of guys’ families are here. We just wanted to show our parents and show the crowd what we are capable of. Playing on Christmas Day, it’s just an unbelievable opportunity to show we love basketball and be with family and be with our guys. It’s incredible.”
A couple of fun facts:
>> UH finished fifth with a 2-1 record in the DHC for the fourth time in 10 years of the event, and for the first time since 2013.
>> It was the first meeting between the programs in quite some time — the first in nearly 23 years, in fact. URI beat UH 89-75 in the Rainbow Classic on Dec. 27, 1995.
>> URI came into the game ranked last in the nation in 3-point shooting at 24.5 percent, but they’d shot 37.2 percent from deep over the first two games of the tournament. UH got them to regress to their average, as the Rams were just 6-for-22 (27.3 percent) from downtown.
>> Sheriff Drammeh did not play in the two wins of the DHC after a scoreless, three-minute appearance in the loss to UNLV.