After leading by 20 points at halftime, a meager five-point edge in the second half was hardly what the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team coveted last night.
Well, most of it, anyway.
Center Vander Joaquim didn’t seem to mind. Not from the looks of it.
Joaquim found his element — and his stage — with the game on the line, helping to propel the Rainbows Warriors to an eventual and tougher-than-necessary 62-52 victory over Fresno State. The biggest ‘Bows starter stood tallest in their second win in a row.
"I like it when the pressure is on," Joaquim acknowledged, flashing an endline-to-endline grin. "I think I play my best then, when my team needs me."
And the ‘Bows definitely needed him when it seemed that what had been a 41-21 lead and the game was about to evaporate in front of an anxious Stan Sheriff Center crowd of about 4,000.
"I like the pressure," Joaquim said. "It makes me play better."
Joaquim scored 11 of his team-high 13 points, grabbed six of a team-high 10 rebounds and blocked two shots in the decisive stretch run of a 36-minute effort to keep the Bulldogs at bay.
Joaquim, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound sophomore from Angola, wasn’t much of a factor in the first half with the Rainbows’ 3-point shooting carrying the moment.
But in the second half, when what had been a 70 percent shooting touch from 3-point range went AWOL at 0-for-5, the Rainbows needed an inside job to save the night. And Joaquim was well positioned to deliver with his opposite number, Greg Smith, hampered with four fouls.
"We wanted to pound it inside," Hawaii coach Gib Arnold said.
Pound they did, and Joaquim relished the role almost as much as the appreciative ovation that followed him to the bench with 32 seconds remaining, the game no longer at issue. One big reason it had been decided was Joaquim’s clutch 5-for-7 free-throw shooting.
The Western Athletic Conference might be new for Joaquim, but he is quickly finding a home in it with perhaps the most consistent play of any Rainbow. A raw junior college transfer when he stepped on campus five months ago, Joaquim has made, even for someone of his height, huge strides, his confidence growing by the game. To their credit, the coaches have not tried to overload him with demands, asking for only what he is capable of delivering at the moment.
In the process, Joaquim is averaging nearly a double-double over UH’s seven conference games and is a big reason they have bounced back from an 0-5 start to be 2-5 entering tomorrow night’s game against San Jose State.
When it was over last night and Joston Thomas accompanied Joaquim into the interview room to meet the media, Thomas looked at his teammate and shook his head. Then, Thomas quipped, "You spend a lot of time in here. What is this, your second home?"
It is getting to be.
Almost as much as a front-and-center role when the game is on the line.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.