An old foe frustrated the Hawaii basketball team’s late-night comeback bid.
New Mexico State dominated the interior and the Rainbow Warriors could not respond until it was too late in a 95-88 NMSU victory early Tuesday morning at the Stan Sheriff Center. UH dropped to 2-1 with its first loss of the season.
The final game of the 49th Outrigger Hotels and Resorts Rainbow Classic was also part of ESPN’s College Hoops Tip-off Marathon. Western Michigan won the Classic title as one of three teams with a 2-1 record — it won the tiebreaker by virtue of fewest points allowed.
“At the end of the game we kept staying aggressive and kept coming at them,” UH coach Gib Arnold said. “But unfortunately we came up a little bit short. It wasn’t our night tonight and give credit to New Mexico State.”
NMSU led by 16 points with 5:29 to play but UH rallied furiously to within four in the final minute, despite starting point guard Keith Shamburger’s ejection for his second technical foul with 7:50 remaining.
UH’s last comeback hopes were basically dashed when UH called a timeout with no timeouts remaining, giving the Aggies two technical foul shots with 27 seconds left for a six-point lead. The ‘Bows got no closer than four while taking fouls; NMSU point guard K.C. Ross-Miller made the Aggies’ last 10 points, all at the free-throw line without a miss.
“It was a miscommunication amongst our staff about whether we had a timeout left or not,” Arnold said. “I was under the impression we had one timeout left. We wanted to set up a press and sub in to get a defensive lineup in. We scored and I called a quick timeout. But again, there was a miscommunication between me and my staff. That’s another learning point, just like the guys, as coaches. We talked about it after the game just to make sure we not only check the board but at each timeout check the main (score)book. We keep it in our own notes. But we just miscommunicated, weren’t right on that.
“That won’t happen again. We’ll make sure of that.”
UH forward Isaac Fotu was named tournament MVP after scoring 20 points with nine rebounds. Guard Garrett Nevels poured in 21 of his game-high 26 points in the second half, but that was not enough as five Aggies scored in double figures, led by guard Daniel Mullings’ 21.
“I was just trying to leave it all on the floor,” said Nevels, who shot 4-for-6 on 3-pointers. “I wasn’t really worried at halftime (down nine) because I mean it’s a whole ‘nother 20-minute game. It’s two halves. I was just trying to get everybody to leave it all on the floor. Just give it your all so you can try and fight back.
“We fought hard but it just didn’t work out tonight.”
A “Blackout” crowd of over 2,000 saw NMSU, the two-time defending WAC champion and one of UH’s primary foils from the ‘Bows’ last days in that league, exert its will inside behind 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar, who finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. All six of Bhullar’s field goals were dunks.
NMSU (2-1) shot a ridiculous 73.7 percent in the second half (14-for-19) and 57.7 percent overall. UH finished at 42.9 percent from the field after a dismal shooting first half.
UH pressed fullcourt often and did not turn the ball over much, finishing with nine to NMSU’s 18, but the Aggies outrebounded UH 40-27. The ‘Bows couldn’t sustain their preferred running game for long.
The ‘Bows tried to body up Bhullar and NMSU’s other forwards but the 6-foot-8 forwards Fotu and Christian Standhardinger (nine points 3-for-12 shooting) clearly had their difficulties. UH doubled Bhullar at times and sometimes threw out a zone, but nothing worked consistently.
“He had the better of us tonight,” Arnold said. “We needed to be more aggressive on him and play him a little earlier. Give them credit, they got him the ball at point-blank range.”
Fotu looked to extend Bhullar out of the paint early by taking 3s, and made the first of his two-year career to open the game. But he missed his next three.
“Obviously it was hard,” Fotu said. “He’s like 350 pounds. It was hard getting around him. There’s a lot of weight behind there. Just tried to use speed and footwork to get results. But it was tough to bang with those big guys. … Nobody wants to be in the paint with a 7-foot-5 guy.”
Five technical fouls were issued in a tightly whistled game.
UH had its difficulties dealing with NMSU’s massive size and athleticism on the wings, connecting on just seven of its first 25 shots, and fell behind by 11 points in the first half before getting to within nine at halftime.
The Aggies went back up by 14 in the first eight minutes of the second half.
Bhullar threw down his sixth dunk of the game — a reverse from right underneath the basket — for NMSU’s biggest lead of 71-56 with under 10 minutes to play.
Quincy Smith (15 points) and Nevels hit 3-pointers to get UH within 80-71 with 4:08 to play. UH got a steal and Smith made one of two free throws.
NMSU missed the front end on a 1-and-1 foul shot and Nevels was fouled on a 3-point attempt at the other end. He drained all three foul shots with 1:48 left to make it 82-77 NMSU.
Ross-Miller (17 points) pulled up in the paint for a cold-blooded jumper to end the immediate threat. UH got to within four with 37 seconds left on a Nevels free throw when Ross-Miller was issued a tech. But Ross-Miller made the first two of his 10 straight foul shots right afterward and UH got no closer than four one more time on a Christian Standhardinger layup.
“Those were the difference in the game, I think,” NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said of his guard’s foul shooting. “It could have been the difference. Just really pleased with his performance at the line.”
Foul trouble for both teams in the first half meant plenty of lineup shuffling.
Shamburger picked up two fouls in the first two minutes — a normal personal foul and the second on a double-technical foul with NMSU’s Daniel Mullings.
Smith picked up his third foul with eight minutes remaining in the first half, and Fotu went out with his second before halftime.
UH drew to within 40-34 when Davis Rozitis poked the ball away from NMSU in the open court and scored inside. But the Aggies came back with a 3-pointer by guard DK Eldridge, who was fouled in the act and completed the rare four-point play for a 44-34 lead.
The ‘Bows shot only 33.3 percent in the period to 48.5 percent for the Aggies, and trailed 46-37 at the break.
It was Hawaii’s sixth straight appearance in the Tip-off Marathon. UH is 4-2 in those games.
UH’s Standhardinger was also named to the all-tournament team.