Beating a reeling Mississippi State team was great and all. Going 2-1 in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic for fifth place was OK, too.
But Gib Arnold and the Hawaii men’s basketball team, the hosts of the ESPN-televised eight-team tournament, have loftier goals for next year.
"First of all, for this program, we want to win this tournament," the UH coach said after UH’s 68-57 early afternoon win over the Bulldogs yesterday at the Stan Sheriff Center. "We want to be playing in the evening game. So we got a lot of work to do. That’s something we take pride in; we want to make sure we hold our own court. So we did some good things to win two games, but we want to win three."
Hawaii (9-3) heads into Western Athletic Conference play on Wednesday at Utah State with its best record through 12 games since 2004-05. UH lost to Florida State in its tourney opener, then clamped down on Utah on Thursday and MSU (8-5) yesterday before a Christmas Day crowd of about 2,500.
The Rainbow Warriors’ defense was impeccable all three games. FSU, Utah and MSU shot a combined 30.8 percent against them.
UH jumped all over the punchless Bulldogs from the opening tip, scoring the game’s first 12 points and holding them to 27 percent shooting, a season best.
MSU was without forwards Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey, who caused quite a stir with their nationally televised fistfight in the Sheriff stands on Thursday. The two were indefinitely suspended by the team and sent home, leaving a gaping void in the middle. The Rainbows took advantage, outpointing MSU 30-12 in the paint.
That was essential, as the Rainbows’ open outside shots just wouldn’t fall against the Bulldogs’ 2-3 zone during the second half. UH shot 6-for-24 from long range, including 1-for-11 after the break.
Junior guard Zane Johnson adjusted, stepping inside the arc with several midrange shots to finish with 19 points and eight rebounds. He led UH in scoring for the fifth straight game.
"Coach told me you’ve gotta have a one-dribble pull-up, two-dribble pull-up to the basket, because they’re going to run down your shots," Johnson said. "They’re doing that now, so I’m kind of glad I worked on it over the summer."
Senior point guard Hiram Thompson, still dealing with a stiff back, weathered all 40 minutes with 14 points and five assists. Sophomore center Vander Joaquim added nine points and 11 rebounds, sophomore forward Joston Thomas scored 11 and freshman forward Trevor Wiseman had nine points and eight boards.
Wiseman crashed for three offensive rebounds and created havoc by slipping behind the Bulldogs defense for easy baskets.
"Coach expects me to bring the heat when I go out (there)," Wiseman said. "I just try to do that whenever I get off the bench. Try to bring energy to the team as much as I can."
UH enjoyed a 42-23 lead at halftime, and led by 22 points with 16 minutes to play. The Bulldogs eventually put up a fight, but thankfully this time it was competition on the hardwood.
A 10-1 run brought MSU to within 56-43, but Johnson ended the run and a nearly 8-minute field-goal drought with a 3, and UH held firm.
"I don’t think our emotion was where it had to be," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "But for the most part, in the second half, (we) didn’t quit. … It just wasn’t very efficient."
Forward Kodi Augustus led MSU with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
The Rainbows got their first win over a Southeastern Conference team since 2001, when UH beat Georgia in the Rainbow Classic final, 54-44. The Rainbows hadn’t beaten MSU since their first meeting in 1968.
Guard Jeremiah Ostrowski suited up for a UH basketball game for the first time, fresh off his 72-yard receiving game for the football team in the Hawaii Bowl the day before. He went scoreless in 2 minutes.
Arnold said there is still no specific timetable on a return for top forward Bill Amis, who has missed eight straight games with a stress fracture in his right foot.