Hawaii got its team Thanksgiving meal out of the way early.
The Rainbow Warriors ate together the eve of the holiday and were too busy for actual festivities on Thursday, but they found reason to be thankful — a 90-79 upset of Utah in the opening round of the Wooden Legacy at Cal State Fullerton.
This was a pretty sizable upset. The Pac-12 team was favored by nine points and with about 10 minutes left, the Runnin’ Utes trailed by 23 after a massive UH run coming out of halftime. Utah made an expected run to get it closer (within seven in the final minute) but still lost by 11, thanks in large part to some sublime foul shooting (25-for-28) by the ‘Bows, who closed by making 13 straight.
The Rainbows, and especially point guard Brocke Stepteau, brought their A-game. The 5-foot-9 senior was in command the whole way against one of the biggest teams in the country, as he went for a career-high 24 points with five assists and one turnover. Drew Buggs was just as effective with the ball in his hands, with 10 points and five assists.
The team had some great practice preparation leading into the tournament, Stepteau said.
“You could feel the energy these past couple days,” he said. “We wanted to come out with intensity, and that’s what we did. We didn’t come out fearing a big school. We accepted the challenge, embraced it, and that helped us out a lot. We didn’t back down.”
Underscoring that, Samuta Avea elevated to block a shot at the rim in the early going.
UH coach Eran Ganot said of the opening few minutes, in which UH held a narrow lead, “You saw our energy coming on, and you’d hope it would transfer to the game. But Brocke had a great week. he had one of his better weeks since he’s been here, and that says something. And obviously he had one of his best games since he’s been here. He bounced back really well, he’s one of our most consistent players and I think he kind of led the charge. But it was very much one of those … the guys kept saying, ’15 strong, 15 strong.'”
As a team, UH dealt 19 assists to eight turnovers. That’s what you call a winning ratio.
Jack Purchase, Eddie Stansberry and Sheriff Drammeh contributed some big shots to help bring home the victory.
And UH’s backup bigs should be celebrated as well. Mate Colina, Dawson Carper and Owen Hulland combined to go 7-for-7 from the field, picking up starting forward Zigmars Raimo, who went scoreless after picking up two very quick fouls.
This was the first time UH’s stable of big men paid necessary dividends, as first Raimo, then Colina, and Carper each picked up two first-half fouls, setting the stage for the next guy in line to man the fort against the only other Division I team with three 7-footers on its roster.
“Matching that physicality was a big part of winning this game, because I think they wanted to come out and just try to bully us inside,” Stepteau said. “We matched their toughness inside. That allowed us to use our advantages, our quickness and our 3-point shooting to our advantage.”
The ball movement was exceptional during UH’s 17-4 run to open the second half.
“That was about as well as we could start a second half,” Ganot said. “The ball had such great energy to it. We were just getting great shots, passing up good ones for great ones. Eddie kind of opened up the floodgates once he got hot, and you know he can do that. That’s a credit to him; he missed some early. Most guys go away (after that), but he doesn’t.”
So, UH’s reward for topping the Utes? A 6:30 p.m. (HST) matchup Friday with Seton Hall of the Big East. Pirates guard Myles Powell scored a career-high 40 points in an 82-75 win (basically half his team’s points) over Grand Canyon preceding UH’s game. It matched James Harden’s Wooden Legacy record for points in a regulation game from when the Houston Rockets guard was at Arizona State.
Friday will be an different sort of test, as Utah was a larger, and more deliberate team, more akin in style to UH. Seton Hall possesses athleticism at just about every position and could be closer to, say, a North Texas type of team. And as we saw, that was a tough matchup.
Powell was a freshman starter on the SHU team that beat UH 68-57 at Bloch Arena in the Pearl Harbor Invitational two years ago. He scored seven points on 2-for-8 shooting. He shot 12-for-16 on Thursday.
“He can play,” Stepteau said. “The key is stopping him, but they’ve got some other players as well. But, I think after a win like that, we gotta be feeling confident that we can play with anybody. We just gotta bring the same intensity we brought tonight, tomorrow and I think we’ll be in a good position to prove people wrong again.”
It gets no easier from here. UH is locked into the winners bracket and will face either Fresno State or Miami on Day 3 of the tournament Sunday.
Note: UH has played Utah more than any other team in its history. The ‘Bows, who lost to the Utes the last two years in Honolulu and Salt Lake City, prevented the Utes from winning for the 50th time in the series. It now stands at 49-11 in favor of Utah.