Jack Purchase came out like a ball of fire. Brocke Stepteau couldn’t miss. And Sheriff Drammeh, hampered by an injury, sucked it up and tried to provide the kind of intangible play he was known for throughout his Hawaii basketball career.
And yet, the three Hawaii basketball seniors were unable to will their team to victory on senior night against Cal State Northridge, a young team on the rise as the Rainbow Warriors fall back to the pack.
Terrell Gomez (32 points) and Lamine Diane (25) were too potent of a 1-2 combo to counter on this night. Now UH (16-12, 7-7 Big West) must rediscover its defense, among other things, entirely on the mainland. It plays at UC Davis and at Cal State Fullerton the coming week preceding the Big West tournament.
If the Rainbows find a way to snap out of their current funk, they can remain in the 4-5 bracket matchup against a team like Davis or CSUN. If not, well, sixth or seventh are distinct possibilities, and a much less favorable draw looms against, say, UC Santa Barbara.
UH certainly had its opportunities Saturday night with a supportive crowd and point guard Drew Buggs (11 points, six rebounds, eight assists) in action despite suffering an ankle injury a week ago. You can credit team athletic trainer Jay Goo, who was himself honored as part of senior night, for getting Buggs ready to go so quickly. Goo, a fixture around the athletic department for decades, is retiring this summer and got a deserved standing ovation during the ceremonies.
After Purchase poured in 20 first-half points on 6-for-8 3-point shooting — making it look like Trevor Ruffin’s single-game record of 10 was in jeopardy — CSUN finally did a better job of running Purchase off the line and kept him scoreless in the second half. But others stepped up and the Rainbows claimed a 52-46 lead with 12:32 to play.
It was short lived. Gomez in particular surged late, pumping in 16 points in the final 8:29.
“During that stretch I thought we could’ve maybe separated, we had a couple turnovers that we threw out of bounds,” UH coach Eran Ganot said. “Obviously Gomez got loose on us quite a bit. Credit them. I really appreciate our guys as always. I’ve done a lousy job with this group, because I think we should be better and hopefully we’ll finish it (better).”
Stepteau finished with 10 points on 3-for-3 shooting from the field and 4-for-4 from the line and had six rebounds and four assists, but also five turnovers.
Drammeh, who was hampered by a leg injury the last week or two, played 18 minutes off the bench and had three points and three rebounds. Unfortunately for the fans who’ve gotten used to his expressive and usually joyful antics, they were not on display on this night.
On a personal note, it was a touch surreal to watch these three players bid adieu to the home fans. My late father, who would follow the program pretty closely and passed in the summer of 2017, would exchange messages with me pretty frequently about UH hoops. The 2016-17 team was the last that he got to watch, and Purchase, Stepteau and Drammeh were all key players on that team. He’d want to know what they were up to and how they planned to respond from a debilitating loss, much like the one Saturday night.
I’m pretty sure the answer now is the same as it would be then: by getting back to work.
Here’s highlights of the three seniors and their thoughts on the night.
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) March 3, 2019
Purchase: “Gotta get back to practice. It all starts at practice. We gotta get in, gotta get in the lab, we gotta work on our defense, obviously. Eighty-four points is too much for a team in the Big West. So we gotta work on our defense. I feel like the offense is moving pretty well, we’re getting whatever shot we want. But yeah, we just gotta get back on the defensive end. … (The ceremony tonight) was amazing. It’s amazing. No one does it as good as Hawaii. It’s incredible the love that you feel here in this state. It’s a second home for me the rest of my life now, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to come here and play.”
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) March 3, 2019
Stepteau: “It’s tough. Obviously we all wanted to win in our last game here. We came up on the losing end, but (Ganot) told us right after the game, ‘flush it right now, we’ll get back to work later.’ But tonight he wanted to celebrate us and take our mind off the loss, and just celebrate this moment, our last time all together on our home floor. I think we did a good job of that. This is a special place and I’m so appreciative of being part of it.”
— HAWAII BASKETBALL (@HawaiiMBB) March 3, 2019
Drammeh: “It’s emotional. You can’t help but to cry. Having all these fans out here, all these kids, we can’t help but be thankful for everybody that’s out here and just excited for what we got next. … The biggest thing to turn this around? We gotta get some toughness. Like we all gotta get really, really tough. That’s what I feel is the biggest thing. If we’re able to get tough, when the conference tournament starts, we really have the position to be the championship team. But what we’re really lacking right now is toughness, as you could see in some stretches when we were getting outrebounded.”
Finally, of the three outgoing seniors, Ganot said: “It’s tough. I usually keep my emotions in check, and you could feel it. I have great love for them. What they’ve done for myself, our family, our program, I think the people in Hawaii, it was really nice to see everybody show them the love that they deserve. And it was a great turnout tonight. I huddled them up after the game, the whole team, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind them to enjoy the whole celebration. Because I know how hard that loss was. But I’m glad they could put that away and enjoy and let them shower with that kind of love.
“Each of them have had different stories and journeys, but each of them has been through as much as any student-athlete at UH could be through. Some dark times and some great moments. They’ve been tremendous in a lot of ways. They’re on pace to graduate which I’ll be really proud of. I know their families are. And in a lot of ways, in terms of culture, they’ll push our program forward. I think we gotta finish strong to make sure on the floor we continue to take the steps. Each year we move it forward and right now unfortunately we’re in a funk, the worst funk of our season currently, but I think these guys got a lot of spirit and fight left in them.”