UH basketball team get rousing welcome before Big West tournament appearance
The mercury was turning blue in Orange County on Wednesday evening, but the vibe was definitely green.
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ANAHEIM, CALIF. >> The mercury was turning blue in Orange County on Wednesday evening, but the vibe was definitely green.
Hawaii basketball coach Eran Ganot gazed in wonderment as the UH Marching Band played a string of favorites — “Hawaii Five-0,” “Co-Ed” and “Can’t Turn You Loose” — while the school’s cheerleaders, alumni and players mingled during Wednesday’s pep rally at the JT Schmid’s Restaurant’s patio.
For the Rainbow Warriors, the wish is the festive feeling will last through the weekend.
“We want to extend our season and play as long as we can,” point guard Drew Buggs said. “It’s do-or-die time.”
UH and Long Beach State meet tonight in the opening round of the eight-team Big West tournament. The tournament’s champion earns the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The other seven teams hold out for a lesser tournament.
“As a senior, there would be no better way to go out than make the NCAA Tournament and go to the Big Dance,” said guard Brocke Stepteau, who was a reserve when the ’Bows last qualified for the postseason party in 2016. “That’s what I’ve been dreaming about my whole life. And that’s what I’ve been working for this whole year to accomplish that as a team. … It’s do or die. You have to embrace that. You can’t shy away from that or be nervous about that. If you don’t play well, there’s not going to be a next game.”
The ’Bows swept the home-and-home series when the 49ers were in the midst of a six-game losing streak.
“I don’t know, as a coach or a player, you’re thinking about that (sweep) if you’ve been on either side of it,” Ganot said. “You’re focused on the third time you’re playing them, if that makes sense. When you go from nonconference to league (play), people know you more. When you go from first game in conference to second game in conference, they know you that much more. And here we are, the third game in conference (against LBSU), and the history, the execution, is going to be at a premium.”
The 49ers won five in a row to close the regular season. Their post is fully healed, led by Mason Riggins and Temidayo Yussuf. Yussuf was coming off an injury in the first meeting between the teams this year. But in seven games over three seasons, Yussuf’s averages against UH, prorated over 40 minutes, are 25.7 points and 10.6 rebounds.
For the ’Bows, a greater concern is guard Deishuan Booker, who is averaging 23.3 points against Big West opponents after averaging 14.2 in non-league games. Booker is skilled on drives, dribbling with either hand, and even better at drawing fouls. He is second nationally in most free throws made (238) and attempted (261), converting at 91.2 percent. He has hit double-digit free throws in 10 games, and 40.6 percent of his points have come from the charity stripe.
“The big key for us is to keep them off the foul line,” said UH assistant coach Jabari Trotter, noting the 49ers draw an average of 21.4 fouls per game. “You have to have your hands up. You’ve got to be able to slide, and take the challenge. If we can take the challenge against them, we can take them off the line.”
Trotter, who has spent hours preparing a scouting report on the 49ers, said it will take a group effort to guard Booker.
“He’s a first-team, all-league guy,” Trotter said. “He’s going to be a tough cover. Those type of guys, you can’t take away completely what they like to do. You try to limit what they do, make things difficult, and live with the results.”
On offense, the ’Bows are expected to quicken their four-out offense. “Make them run around,” Trotter said, “make them guard multiple actions.”
After Wednesday’s two-hour practice, UH guard Eddie Stansberry spent an extra 20 minutes honing his 3-point shooting. “You can’t have a consistent jump shot if you don’t work on it,” Stansberry said.
Guard Leland Green also has been a contributor off the bench in recent games. Green sparked the ’Bows’ comeback against UC Davis a week ago. The past April, Green underwent surgery to repair damage to the labrum and rotator cuff in his right (shooting) arm. He began ball-handling drills in July, and did not feel completely healed until January. Green has embraced his instant-offense role.
“I want to keep playing as long as I can with this team,” Green said. “We’ve been through a lot, a lot of ups and downs. I want to give 100 percent. I know my teammates want to give 100 percent. We want to go as far as we possibly can.”