Page 2 From The Tournament: 'Bows Rally Through Adversity
The waning minutes of the Big West Men’s Basketball Championship game had everything Hawai’i ever wanted in a title game.
The margin for error was thin and the tension hung thick in the air. A crowd of more than 5,000 watched as the top-seeded Rainbow Warriors clung to a two-point lead as No. 3 Long Beach State earned three key possessions. One by one, the 49ers came up empty.
Long Beach’s Noah Blackwell missed a three-pointer with 52 seconds left. After Hawaii’s Roderick Bobbitt turned the ball over, Justin Bibbins, Long Beach State’s 45 percent 3-point shooter, hit iron.
There were timeouts, calls reviewed and stoppages in play that built to a crescendo that finally boomed when Bobbitt sunk a pair of free throws with two seconds left on the clock to finally push the game out of reach and secure the championship for Hawai’i with a 64-60 win, Sunday at Honda Center.
“I think I speak for the whole team when I say that we love these games,” ‘Bows forward Stefan Jankovic said. “It shows how tough we are and how composed we are. We don’t want to win any other way. We don’t want a blowout, we want to show that we’re a tough team and we can play through adversity.”
Adversity is exactly what Hawai’i has played through on their way to this win, which now puts the program on their way to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002, when it was a member of the WAC.
The ‘Bows had gone through their third coaching change in three years, but first-year head coach Eran Ganot deftly navigated the team through the 2015-16 season. The ‘Bows won 27 games, the most in the conference since former member Pacific achieved the same feat in 2004-05.
Ganot held the rest of the group together and got them to all buy in and recommit.
“This means a lot after all we’ve been through together,” junior guard Aaron Valdes said. “We all could have quit on each other. We all could have gone other places. But it means a lot that we didn’t and this is the outcome in the end.”
Valdes was named tournament MVP after three dominating performances. He scored 14 points with five rebounds on Sunday with a few of those boards coming down the stretch when it mattered most.
The ‘Bows out-rebounded the 49ers 35-30 and the margin was a huge factor.
“The difference was our composure and our rebounding,” Ganot said. “We’re really good when we win on the boards and the last time we played them we weren’t and we got annihilated.”
Long Beach State (20-14) couldn’t overcome a poor shooting performance. The 49ers shot 37.3 percent from the field and two of their best shooters, Nick Faust (17 points, eight rebounds) and Travis Hammonds (12 points) had to watch from the bench after both fouled out in the final 3:30.
“I really felt like our guys were so excited for the opportunity that it took us 30 min to settle down on the offensive end,” Long Beach head coach Dan Monson said. “We never got into a rhythm. We were battling uphill.”
Hammonds attempted to put the team on his back and carry them over the hump. A dynamic shotmaker with the ability to play shutdown defense, Hammonds wasn’t able to play with his signature aggression after he picked up his fourth foul. The junior swingman was beside himself after that fourth foul.
He fouled out with 1:06 to play, which influenced Monson’s decision to have Blackwell and Bibbins try for game-winning threes.
“With Trav and Nick out, I thought overtime was going to be a monumental task for us,” Monson said.
If there’s one thing to be gleaned from this loss it was experience. Monson is confident that The Beach is back and they’ve been brought back with the right players.
“I told the guys that the biggest issue they had tonight was that they cared too much,” Monson said. “I feel like the program is back. We took a step back after we won three straight Big West (regular season) championships and made sure we had the guys we wanted in the program.”
Hawai’i (27-5) awaits its fate on Selection Sunday. Whatever the draw, the Rainbow Warriors are ready for a tight battle.
“These guys are sick puppies,” Ganot said. “When you look at their eyes, they make you believe.”
Jankovic was also named to the all-tournament team…Faust and Bibbins were named for The Beach…UC Santa Barbara’s Michael Bryson and UC Irvine’s Luke Nelson rounded out the team…Hawai’i is making its fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first as a member of the Big West…The ‘Bows are the sixth No. 1 seed in the last 11 years to win the tournament.