The season opener was still a couple of weeks away and the Big West preseason women’s basketball poll had installed Hawaii as the favorite to repeat as conference champion.
But as Laura Beeman took her turn in front of reporters on media day last fall, the question foremost on her mind was how the Rainbow Wahine would handle the first taste of adversity in her 11th season as head coach.
“How we respond to that is probably going to be the biggest lesson,” Beeman said in her media day session Oct. 20. “Is it a complete meltdown? Is it, ‘OK, this is just a little blip in the system?’ How you handle those blips, really to me, is what defines what your season is going to be like.”
“Blips” would be a mild description for the obstacles the Rainbow Wahine navigated over the next four and a half months, and their response indeed defined another championship season.
So when the now two-time Big West Tournament champions returned to campus after a 91⁄2-hour charter flight on Saturday — a day after a 73-50 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge, La., capped an 18-15 season — Beeman had the answer to the question she posed back in the fall in the practice gym.
“Back to back,” she said amid a homecoming celebration outside SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center. “That’s how I can answer that.
“I don’t think anybody thought we were going to win the conference championship. I don’t think anyone thought we were going to play as well as we did at LSU. I’ll tell you, don’t ever give up on these kids.”
Opportunities to melt down were abundant in a 1-7 start against a rigorous nonconference schedule stocked with five games against four teams that would go on to earn bids in the NCAA Tournament.
By the end of January, three key members of the rotation — guards Olivia Davies and Jovi Lefotu and forward Jacque David — had suffered season-ending injuries. Freshman forward Avery Watkins would join them on the sideline in late February with her foot in a cast.
Struggles with continuity contributed to issues with consistency that played out with alternating wins and losses over a 10-game stretch in conference play.
Yet roles crystallized over a 7-2 run to close the regular-season with the two losses both decided in the final seconds at home vs. Long Beach State and in an overtime loss at UC Irvine.
The previous trials seemed to have a refining quality as the Wahine entered the Big West Tournament in Henderson, Nev. Their title defense survived a double-overtime duel with Cal State Fullerton, thanks to Meilani McBee’s tying 3-pointer with 19 seconds left in the first OT.
Then came a payback win over Beach in the semis and finally the comeback from a 15-point deficit against UC Santa Barbara to earn the program’s first back-to-back NCAA berths since 1989 and ’90.
Daejah Phillip’s layup with 3.4 seconds off a feed from freshman Imani Perez — who played beyond her years with each start over the final month of the season — will live in Wahine basketball lore and she emerged from the bus on Saturday carrying the net-draped Big West Tournament trophy.
“We really wanted to do it for Hawaii,” Philips said. “Seeing the people that grew up here, that live here, how happy they were, holding that trophy really meant a lot to me.”
As guard Lily Wahinekapu developed comfort and confidence in the UH system after transferring from Cal State Fullerton, her composure proved as vital as her 17.8 points per game over the season’s final five games.
In fact, each member of UH’s rotation over the stretch can claim a key contribution at some point in the last month.
In the end, the Rainbow Wahine finished right where the Big West preseason coaches poll predicted.
No one back in October could have foreseen the path they’d have to traverse to get there.
“I think there were points in the season where it didn’t seem like it was going to be the season we wanted it to be,” graduate forward Kallin Spiller said. “We had to get back to the drawing board, band together and to see us fight through that, it definitely made the victory even sweeter.”
With Spiller and guard McKenna Haire comprising UH’s outgoing class and again the bulk of a championship roster eligible to return, Hawaii could again be favored when the fall rolls around again. That said, Beeman nor Phillips were ready to look beyond a restful Saturday night after the trip back from the Bayou.
“Not yet, “ Beeman said. “I haven’t even thought about this season yet.
“I don’t think it’s hit me. I think when it does I’m going to have my moment of just, ‘Wow.’ Emotions will probably hit me pretty hard just thinking about everything we’ve been through.”
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