There really was no decision — even if it cost a timeout.
Hawaii coach Gib Arnold symbolically started all three senior tri-captains against New Mexico State in the final home game of the season on Saturday night.
Only one of those three — forward Bill Amis — was expected to open up the 76-70 win over the Aggies. For center Douglas Kurtz, it was the first Division I start of his career. For point guard Hiram Thompson, it was his first appearance since injuring his left arm against Nevada on Valentine’s Day.
Thompson, who still couldn’t move his arm well, dribbled across halfcourt once Hawaii controlled the opening tip and immediately called timeout. He came out to a loud ovation from the senior night crowd of about 8,000. Numerous Thompson family members, who flew in from the mainland, were among them.
"Oh, there was no decision," Arnold said. "We were going to do it, and we had to burn a timeout to get it. But it was worth it, just to give Hiram one last chance on this floor, take a couple dribbles then call a timeout. I’m glad we did it. And you know what, it actually got us going. Doug played really well early. I was pleased."
The 7-foot Kurtz remained in the game for the first 4 minutes, 15 seconds, and put back a miss of a Miah Ostrowski 3-pointer, then blocked NMSU center Hamidu Rahman at the other end. He too got a nice hand when he checked out of the game for usual starter Vander Joaquim, who erupted for 18 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.
The subtraction of a timeout didn’t come back to bite the Rainbows (17-10, 7-7 Western Athletic Conference), who fended off NMSU’s best shots and won for the eighth time in 10 games.
"(The seniors) earned that and they brought it, Doug did a great job those first couple minutes," said junior guard Zane Johnson, who buried six 3-pointers for most of his game-high 22 points. "I’m really glad for Hiram, the last time he’s going to come out there and got the standing ovation he deserves. And Bill played great again (14 points, 11 rebounds), you know what you’re going to get from Bill every night."
UH’s win avenged an 82-64 loss in Las Cruces, N.M., on Jan. 13 and snapped a six-game losing streak to the Aggies, who fell out of second place. It was just UH’s third win in 15 all-time games against NMSU.
UH is in a jumble from second to fifth place heading into the final week of the regular season. Boise State (9-6), NMSU (8-6), Idaho (8-7) and fifth-place Nevada (7-7) are contending with UH for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds, which afford byes in the WAC tournament March 9-12 in Las Vegas. The heavily weighted No. 2 seed awards two byes into the semifinals, but the single bye from the No. 3 or 4 spots is still invaluable, preventing a team from having to win four games in four days for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Hawaii plays at San Jose State (15-12, 5-9) on Thursday and at Fresno State (13-15, 5-9) in the regular-season finale on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Johnson continued his assault on the single-season 3-point record. The six on Saturday gave the Arizona transfer 18 in his last three games and raised him to 84 overall, putting him within striking distance of Michael Kuebler’s 97 in 2003-04 with a minimum three games still to play.
He pulled up from anywhere within 26 feet on Saturday night, hitting several with a hand in his face. After some close misses, he hit the biggest 3 of the game to all but put NMSU away with 1:33 left.
"I’m a rhythm shooter, so it’s tough sometimes when things go in and out," Johnson said. "But that’s what I think I’ve gotten better at all season, is not thinking about the last shot, but thinking about the next shot and not worrying about a miss."