Written By: Bill Harty
Welcome to sunny Las Vegas, where it is a balmy 63 degrees for Thursday’s first game of the WAC tournament between the third seeded Idaho Vandals and the sixth seeded Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors. Of course, what recap from Vegas would not include the lines, so at the Orleans sports book: to bet on Idaho, you would have had give up 5½ points, and the over/under on the total score was 138.
The teams split the regular season series, each winning on the other’s home court. January 28 saw Hawai’i win at Idaho, 76-70. One week ago, the Vandals prevailed at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, 82-63. Idaho had won seven of its prior eight games, including giving league leader Nevada its only conference loss at the Lawlor Events Center in Reno. Since a win over Division III Division II now apparently returning to Division I New Orleans, Hawai'i had lost five straight. In addition, Hawai'i leading outside shooter Zane Johnson did not make the trip to the mainland with the team because of illness. Another contrast between these two schools is their typical tempo of play: according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Hawai'i is fifteenth nationally in adjusted tempo, while Idaho is 294th of the 345 teams in Division I hoops. Idaho had never won a WAC tournament game since joining the conference in 2005 06, while Hawai'i had not won one since 2005.
The conference realignment tension was palpable in the arena. This is the final WAC tournament (at least for now, I guess, given Boise State’s impending return) for Hawai'i, who is headed for the Big West next year, as well as Nevada and Fresno State, who will play in the Mountain West’s final season and then in a conference to be named later. Conference staff and the remaining five schools all seem a little (okay, maybe more than a little) nervous, unsure what will happen next, even though five additional schools (independent Seattle, the Sunbelt’s geographic outlier Denver, as well as Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and Texas-Arlington from the Southland, forming a land bridge across Texas to Louisiana Tech) are slated to join the WAC in the fall.
The crowd was small, although larger than the 0 shown in the final box score, but enthusiastic. Seven of the eight school bands attended the WAC tournament this year, and here are a couple of pictures of, first, the Idaho band, and then, the Hawai'i band (they are back there behind the cheer squad) before the game.
The first score of the game was by Idaho center Kyle Barone, who scored fourteen in the first half, with three consecutive dunks toward the end of the half. The Vandals sat back in a zone defense which was pretty effective in the half, given the absence of Johnson. The Warriors’ enthusiastic defense pressured the Vandals everywhere, including a half-court man-to-man and a trapping full-court press much of the game.
Every once in a while official David Hall has a game where he really seems to like the sound of his whistle; this was one of them. Hawai'i forward Joston Thomas and Idaho forward Wendell Faines each had two fouls in the first eight minutes of the game. The tempo was of the game was a little choppy because of the constant interruptions; there were twenty-two first half free throws. The half ended with two fouls in the final nine seconds, the third each on Idaho guard Connor Hill and Hawai'i center Davis Rozitis.
Hawai’i first half scoring was balanced, led by guard Shaquille Stokes and center Vander Joaquim’s ten each, and they led at the half, 35-28. Idaho missed a number of inside shots even though much of their scoring came inside from Barone and forward Djim Bandoumel. Toward the end of the half, Hawai'i forward Trevor Wiseman twisted a knee coming down on an opponent’s foot after a rebound try; he returned in the second half but was not a contributor on offense.
After the intermission, Hawai'i added two quick buckets to their lead. After Barone scored on a transition layup two minutes into the half, Idaho coach Don Verlin called a quick timeout to regroup. When Warrior Thomas picked up his third foul, Hawai'i coach Gib Arnold also got an early timeout. Idaho, in their patient style, went to work on the Hawai'i lead. After open threes by Vandals Deremy Geiger and Stephen Madison, Arnold used his fourth timeout with more than fourteen minutes to play. At twelve minutes, Thomas was called for his fourth foul (marginal call at best) and complained to Hall, who sent him to the bench with a technical.
So now Hawai'i has Johnson at home, Thomas disqualified, and Wiseman hobbled. Arnold installs a full court trapping defense. A pair of three pointers by Vandals Connor Hill and Madison gives Idaho a two point lead. Two fouls on Warriors give Idaho four straight free throws. Just under eight minutes to play, Arnold goes ballistic on Hall and gets himself a technical foul. Madison’s two free throws and his following layup put Idaho up seven, 62-55. A trade of layups made it 64-57.
At that point, the tide turned in the Warriors favor, slowly at first. The Hawai'i defense held Idaho on 64 for a while. Stokes made one of two free throws, and then guard Garrett Jefferson did the same. Lead down to five. Joaquim followed a missed superhoop attempt by guard Miah Ostrowski with a tip in. Idaho by three. Madison missed a jumper, and Stokes knocked down a three. Game tied at 64 with three minutes to play. During the media timeout, the Idaho band woke up (and cracked up) the crowd by playing a few bars of the Hawai'i Five-O theme.
After the timeout , Madison made the first of two free throws to give Idaho a lead. Hawai'i forward Hauns Brereton scored a layup, then two free throws to put the Warriors up three. Geiger’s driving layup and the free throw because of Ostrowski’s foul tied the score at 68 with 49 seconds to go. After Barone blocks Stokes layup attempt, Joaquim tipped it in. Barone evened the score with a layup at the other end. Tied at 70 with twenty-two seconds. Hawai'i deliberately played for a good shot, getting a Brereton jumper with three seconds left. Idaho’s desperation pass to the front court was grabbed by a leaping Joaquim to complete the Hawai'i upset. Final score Hawai'i 72, Idaho 70.
Joaquim had twenty points and thirteen rebounds for Hawai'i; Brereton also had a double-double, with seventeen and eleven, and of course, the game winner. Stokes added seventeen points as well, and Thomas scored nine before he prematurely left the court. For Idaho, Barone got nineteen points, Madison fifteen, and guard Landon Tatum added twelve. Bandoumel had sixteen rebounds for the Vandals, who end their season 18-13 and have hopes of a CBI or CIT invitation. Hawai'i moves on to the second round tomorrow to face the winner of the following New Mexico State-Fresno State quarterfinal.