LAS VEGAS » Vander Joaquim played up.
With Hawaii’s final season in the Western Athletic Conference on the line, the Rainbow Warriors’ junior center made good on his first-team All-WAC billing. He scored 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and was generally huge in UH’s 72-70 WAC tournament quarterfinal win over Idaho on Thursday.
While much of the game at Orleans Arena was about UH role players stepping up in the absence of Zane Johnson (and later, a fouled-out Joston Thomas), it equally had to do with the redemption of Joaquim.
Nearly as entertaining as the frenzied finish — capped off with a Hauns Brereton game-winner with 3.2 seconds left — was Joaquim’s game-long battle against Idaho’s Kyle Barone, the All-WAC second-team center. The two skilled big men exchanged hook shots, dunks and stare-downs nearly all 40 minutes.
"Oh yeah, I had fun," Joaquim said. "You know, at the end of the day somebody had to win. He’s a good player. We had a good game at the end. Most important is the win."
The two big men were clearly the two best players on the court, but it certainly didn’t look that way early for Joaquim.
The 6-foot-10 Angolan’s 0-for-4 start called to mind his struggles in being held to consecutive season lows of four points and two points last week, when UH was in the throes of a five-game losing streak — including a 19-point home loss to the Vandals.
This time, a focused Joaquim hit nine of his final 13 shots for his sixth 20-10 game and 12th double-double of the season.
"I played much better today," Joaquim said. "I was just being smart out there with the referees. I relaxed a couple of times on defense because of fouls. All that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just moving on."
Barone became part of the Vander renaissance, but for a while he paid UH’s big man back just as much as he received.
Barone had 14 of his 19 points in the first half, including a two-handed dunk into the body of a backpedaling Joaquim.
"He’s a good player," Barone said of Joaquim. "I just wanted to come out and be aggressive, attack him. And I thought we played a good enough game to win it, it’s just they made the plays that mattered the most in a game like that."
And Joaquim was right in the center of it.
He scored on a putback of a Shaquille Stokes shot blocked by Barone with 31 seconds left. Out of a timeout, Barone did a quick move to tie it back up at 70.
After Brereton’s game-winner, Joaquim intercepted Idaho’s desperation fullcourt inbounds heave with 3.2 seconds left to seal it.
Being conscious of the refs — not always Joaquim’s strong suit — paid off this time, even after he picked up a loose ball foul in the first 2 minutes.
"I think another thing for Van was, in the last couple of games, he got into foul trouble," said point guard Miah Ostrowski, the other UH player to play the whole game. "He had to come in and out, in and out, and I think that messed up his rhythm. We need him on the court at all times, and he played 40 minutes tonight, so I think if he can stay on the court, he can find his rhythm.
"And that’s when he’s tough to stop."
UH coach Gib Arnold noticed a change in Joaquim once the team got settled in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
"I did notice something different," Arnold said. "We had everything on the line … I could tell he was relaxed, I could tell he was confident. I could tell he wanted to play. He’s been great for us all year. He’s been our most consistent player all year. Had one bad week, and it happened to be the last two home games."
HAWAII 72, IDAHO 70
RAINBOW WARRIORS (16-15)
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.
Halftime — Hawaii 35, Idaho 28
3-points goals — Hawaii 2-10 (Stokes 2-7, Brereton 0-1, Ostrowski 0-2). Idaho 6-16 (Madison 2-5, Hill 2-6, Tatum 1-2, Geiger 1-3). Steals — Hawaii 6 (Joaquim 2, Jefferson 2, Ostrowski, Wiseman). Idaho 4 (Tatum 2, Madison, McChristian). Blocked shots — Hawaii 1 (Joaquim). Idaho 5 (Bandoumel 3, Barone 2). Technicals — Thomas. Officials — David Hall, Mike Giarrantano, D.G. Nelson. A — not reported.