What a ride it’s been so far.
The Rainbow Warrior and Rainbow Wahine Hawaii basketball teams are a combined 3-0 at the Honda Center and each have a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday by winning their respective Big West championship game.
For either program, the opportunity has been a long time coming. The last time the UH men or women made a conference title game was 2002, for each.
The men won it that year, by 14 over Tulsa on the Golden Hurricane’s home court. The women didn’t, falling by three to Louisiana Tech.
That was three coaches ago for both programs. I’d just started college.
So here we are, 13 years later. The uproar of fan support online and around social media has been considerable, and the UH teams have definitely noticed.
First up Saturday is Laura Beeman‘s surging, top-seeded Rainbow Wahine (23-7) on Fox Sports Prime Ticket. They roll into the noon (HST) championship game on a 15-game winning streak and as the favorite over No. 2 Cal State Northridge (22-9), last year’s tournament champ and Big West representative to the NCAA tournament. CSUN was the preseason pick to win the league.
The Matadors used an effective press and 3-point shooting to defeat UC Davis in their semifinal. UH has looked pretty sharp (not Janae Sharpe, the CSUN guard) at breaking opponents’ pressure thus far.
CSUN’s attack is three-pronged around guards Sharpe (12.3 ppg), Ashlee Guay (16.0) and Cinnamon Lister (11.5). Center Camille Mahlknecht (7.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is the Matadors’ main front line threat.
The Wahine split the regular-season meetings with the Matadors, but the Jan. 10 game UH lost on the road happened when Shawna-Lei Kuehu sat out to rest her ailing shoulder.
That was the last time the Wahine lost. All they need is one more W for their first NCAA appearance since 1998. Destiny King is playing at a high level in the absence of point guard Morgan Mason (I would say she’s still doubtful to play today). Marissa Wimbley could be key for her defense on CSUN’s quick guards.
There’s a bit of a break in between games; the men’s championship begins at 5:30 p.m. (HST) on ESPN2.
The Rainbow Warriors (22-12) lost both regular-season meetings to the Irvine Anteaters (20-12), but as UCI coach Russell Turner said after his team’s overtime semifinal win over UC Santa Barbara, the next 40 minutes of gameplay don’t have a lick to do with what happened during the regular season.
Irvine dodged a bullet when UCSB center Alan Williams missed an open 8-foot floater at the regulation buzzer. It could easily be the Gauchos tipping it up against the Rainbows today.
It was tough to see Big Al end his decorated Big West career that way, but UCSB might play on in the postseason, possibly in the CIT.
Topping Irvine could be a tall order for UH.
UCI has 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye back and healthy from the foot problems that plagued him most of the season; he did not play in either regular-season meeting with UH. Forward Will Davis II, who looks positively tiny standing next to Ndiaye, has played well all season with or without the Senegalese giant. Both are accomplished shot blockers, and that ability allows the ‘Eaters to range out far in their zone defense knowing they have formidable backstops.
UH will have to win the guard battle decisively, given UCI’s advantage up front (and especially with the UH bigs struggling in this tournament).
Roderick Bobbitt, Garrett Nevels and Isaac Fleming come into this game with plenty of swagger. They’ll go toe-to-toe with the typically poised backcourt of Alex Young and Luke Nelson, capable playmakers both. Travis Souza (46.7 percent 3s) and Jaron Martin (48.9) must be respected at all times beyond the arc.
Aaron Valdes came up huge late in the semifinal win over Davis. His athleticism very well might come into play again. UC Riverside’s Taylor Johns got in a thunder dunk over Ndiaye in the quarterfinals, so the bar has been set pretty high in that respect.
UH has gone to “midget ball” late in these tourney games, as Benjy Taylor put it. He said he’s looking for his bigs — Stefan Jankovic, Stefan Jovanovic and Mike Thomas — to get UH to the 35-minute mark in good shape and let the “midgets” take over from there. That’s pretty much how the wins over Long Beach State and Davis played out.
Oh, and lastly, Bobbitt just needs one more steal to reach 100 for the season and become the fourth Big West player to reach that mark.
Enjoy watching the games.