ANAHEIM, Calif. >> The Hawaii basketball team was unable to hold onto a late double-digit lead and fell 68-67 to UC Irvine in the Big West tournament first round today at the Honda Center.
Unless UH accepts an invitation to play in a pay-to-play tournament, the Rainbow Warriors’ season ended at 17-13.
Max Hazzard’s elbow jumper with 5.5 seconds left was the decider after Gibson Johnson put UH up for the last time with a three-point play with 14.1 seconds left.
Brocke Stepteau had a look at the buzzer after he drove the length of the court and into the paint. After he pivoted, his contested look was off the left side of the iron, no good, as UCI (17-16) improved to 3-0 against UH in six years of Big West tournament participation.
Evan Leonard led third-seeded UCI with 24 points. The Anteaters used a late 14-2 run and fullcourt pressure to steal the victory.
Johnson led sixth-seeded UH with a career-high 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting. Mike Thomas added 14 points.
UH claimed a three-point halftime lead and went up 10 with 5:30 to play.
UH forced a handful of turnovers to claim a narrow early lead despite not shooting the ball well. The Rainbows committed three turnovers in the first half and shot 55.6 percent from the field in the second (44.8 percent overall).
The Anteaters went up thanks to 11 points in the period by Eyassu Worku; their BWC first-team forward, Tommy Rutherford, picked up two quick fouls and hit the bench.
Stepteau’s 3 on a kickout from Thomas put UH back ahead, 27-24. Thomas’ offensive rebound and reverse putback staked UH to a 29-26 halftime lead. Thomas had 10 points and six rebounds in the half.
Leland Green’s 3 made it 45-36 with 13 minutes left. Hazzard scored a three-point play and a runner to end UH’s spurt.
Johnson’s baby hook made it 47-41 with 11 minutes left, but Leonard put in a basket plus the foul.
Buggs stole the ball from Brad Greene and fed Johnson in transition for a layup. Johnson added another layup on a pump fake to push the lead back to seven.
Johnson, left open on the perimeter, splashed a 3 to make it 54-46. He fed Jack Purchase for a layup to keep the margin eight with under eight minutes left.
UH allowed a Rutherford layup and the Rainbows turned it over unforced on the ensuing inbounds pass, but Rutherford missed from close range. Johnson scored inside from Buggs and the senior’s free throws the next trip down made it a 10-point game.
Thomas flushed it with two hands on a dish from Buggs. But Irvine came back with a layup and a corner 3 from Hazzard to cut the lead to five. Stepteau stopped the bleeding with a floater with three minutes left.
UCI kept coming because of its free-throw shooting. It made 14 of 15 in the second half and 17 of 2o for the game. Worku’s two cut it to 64-61 and the Anteaters forced a jumpball turnover on the ensuing inbounds pass. Worku scooped in a layup to make it a one-point game.
UH turned it over again, out of bounds against UCI’s fullcourt pressure. Thomas blocked Worku’s runner and UH called timeout with 1:35 left.
Drammeh missed a corner 3 and Leonard scored in transition with just over a minute left for UCI’s first lead of the period with slightly over a minute left.
Worku stole it from Stepteau in the halfcourt and Buggs fouled out trying to steal it back. Worku went 1-for-2 and UH called timeout down 66-64 with 31.7 seconds left.
UH got the ball to Johnson in the post. He worked on the two-time defensive player of the year, Jonathan Galloway. He put it up and in off the glass, plus the foul, with 14.1 seconds left.
After a UCI timeout, Hazzard drove into a contested elbow jumper, all net with 5.5 seconds left. UCI called time and set its defense for Stepteau’s desperate drive.