The Hawaii seniors got a little help from their friends on senior night.
Behind 22 points from junior guard Zane Johnson and 18 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks from sophomore center Vander Joaquim, the Rainbow Warriors outlasted New Mexico State 76-70 last night at the Stan Sheriff Center.
A crowd of about 8,000 was on hand for the stirring Western Athletic Conference victory, which wasn’t earned until UH (17-10, 7-7 WAC) held off the stubborn, press-happy Aggies (14-15, 8-6) with big plays from the underclassmen.
Johnson’s sixth 3-pointer was the biggest, putting UH up 70-63 with 1:35 to play. Freshman guard Bo Barnes added four 1-and-1 free throws when NMSU resorted to fouling, and senior forward Bill Amis fittingly had the final two UH points of the home season.
Then it was on to the celebration. Amis, center Douglas Kurtz and point guard Hiram Thompson were honored. Some of Thompson’s family even did a Polynesian dance on the Sheriff court.
"The whole week I was trying to focus on New Mexico State, but you (media) guys kept asking me about senior night," said a lei-clad Amis, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds. "Now that it’s here and it’s over, I’m kinda just reflecting on how good of a time I had here and how great the fans have been. Kind of bittersweet. I’m glad we got to go out with a win."
The big-picture impact of the victory: With its eighth win in its last 10 games, UH moved into a fifth-place tie with Nevada and stayed in contention for a top-four seed in the WAC tournament with two regular-season road games remaining.
There was no getting it without Johnson and Joaquim, who combined to shoot 15-for-24, as well as junior guard Miah Ostrowski (seven assists offsetting 1-for-9 shooting) and freshman forward Trevor Wiseman (nine points, five rebounds, three steals). Freshman point guard Bobby Miles, whose court time had been limited of late, did a solid job of running the team against pressure in 14 minutes.
"It was a big deal for us to give the seniors this last win … but at the same time you see a glimpse of the future with Vander and Zane together," UH coach Gib Arnold said. "It was a great way to end the year here at home and, as Bill told me, we got a lot of ball left."
Though UH led throughout, NMSU rallied from an 11-point, first-half deficit to tie the game at 35 at the outset of the second half, and drew within 67-63 with 2:15 to play after the Rainbows led by 13 earlier in the period.
Reserve guards Christian Kabongo and Gordo Castillo kept the Aggies in the game with a combined 36 points, while point guard Hernst Laroche added 15. But the WAC’s second-leading scorer, Troy Gillenwater, was held to six points on 2-for-10 shooting.
NMSU upped the pressure to fullcourt in the final 10 minutes and several times forced UH into turnovers — 16 for the game — or bad shots at the end of the shot clock.
Things looked dire, as Joaquim and Ostrowski both fouled out in the final 2:15.
That is, until Johnson bailed out the ‘Bows one last time, with one that rattled through from the left wing. He shot 6-for-12 from long range.
"If this was my senior year, this is the way I’d want to go out," Johnson said. "Winning, and having a winning season, and it’s even more special for them because the whole time they’ve been here it’s been up and down. Tough times. This year it was bright, and the future’s looking even brighter."
Ultimately, the Aggies couldn’t overcome 36.1 percent shooting compared to 45.2 percent for UH, a 42-30 Rainbows rebounding advantage and, of course, Johnson.
"Zane was spectacular tonight, I thought he did a great job of hitting contested, deep shots, and I thought that was the difference," NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said. "Other than that, I was impressed with my guys’ energy and effort and ability to apply fullcourt pressure. Just fell a little short."
Ostrowski picked up his third personal with 2:18 left in the first half. With Miles at the controls, the Aggies turned opportunistic during a 12-5 run to close the half.
The junior guard was tagged with his fourth with 16:36 to play, forcing Arnold to reinsert Miles.
This time, the freshman ran the team with confidence, boosting UH to a 14-3 run and double-digit lead that would be just enough to hold off NMSU.
Arnold started the three seniors — including point guard Hiram Thompson, who has been rehabbing ligament damage around his left elbow. It was a symbolic gesture; after controlling the opening tip, Thompson called timeout immediately after crossing halfcourt and was taken out to a nice round of applause.
‘BOWS BAG ORAL COMMITMENT
Dorsey (Los Angeles) High small forward Dillon Biggs (6-7) has given Hawaii an oral commitment to play basketball starting in the 2011-12 season, according to Dorsey coach Kevin Gibson.
Biggs, who has not visited the UH campus yet, averaged about 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks for Dorsey. Gibson said among the schools interested in Biggs were Nevada and Louisiana Tech.
"(Arnold) had seen him this summer and often during our season," Gibson said. "He can play almost all the positions. He’s pretty good skill-wise. He has pretty good knowledge of the game. … He can slash to the basket, he has a nice outside jump shot. He handles the ball pretty good, he’s a pretty good passer for his size. Very explosive athlete."
Calihighsports.com ranked Biggs as the seventh-best small forward prospect in the state.
Biggs, the second known player to give UH an oral commitment in 2011 — in addition to two players signed in the fall — cannot sign a binding national letter of intent until April 13.
HAWAII 76, NEW MEXICO STATE 70
Key — fg-a: field goals made-attempted; ft-a: free throws made-attempted; rb: rebounds; pf: personal fouls; pts: total points; a: assists; to: turnovers; min: minutes played.