Photo Credit: Guava Press Media / hawaiiathletics.com

Battle For the Big West Continues as ‘Bows Return Home for Senior Week

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED FEB 22, 2023

MANOA — Things continue to come together at the right time for the Hawai’i men’s basketball team.

Following a clean sweep of wins on the most recent road trip, the ‘Bows return home positioned well to make a run at the regular season Big West title with just four games left in the regular season.

“Coach Ganot is always talking about how [we] have an opportunity to influence our destiny,” senior forward Kamaka Hepa said after returning to the islands. “I think, with the last two teams we have coming in for our home games, it’s the perfect opportunity for us but the mindset as a team is similar to what I said [of being grateful for the chance].”

Hawai’i will host UC Riverside on Thursday, February 23 and UC Irvine on Saturday, February 25 for senior night. The Highlanders currently sit in 2nd, one game ahead of the Rainbow Warriors in the Big West standings while UC Irvine sits atop the conference.

Highlanders Height vs. Hawai’i Hustle

Every game has more battles than just the final score and improvements to make afterwards.

Though the ‘Bows won the first matchup at UCR, the Highlanders out-rebounded the visiting Rainbow Warriors, 50-37, and won the second-chance points battle, 21-7. 

The discrepancy on the boards, coupled with UCR’s efficiency on second-chance points, helped the Highlanders cut a 13-point second half Hawai’i lead all the way down to two with just over 90 seconds to play.

Hawai’i led for most of the game, only falling behind after the first basket of the first half and in the first minute of the second half. Though they struggled at times to keep the Highlanders off the glass, the steady hand of JoVon McClanahan helped guide the ‘Bows through lulls and some Hepa foul trouble. The junior guard had 19 points, including a pair of clutch free throws in the final minute to seal the win for the Rainbow Warriors.

UCR is aided by a tall lineup, with stud first-year forward Lachlan Olbrich standing at 6’10” and redshirt sophomore center Jhaylon Martinez measuring at 6’11” rounding out an already-tall backcourt, and consistently wins the rebounding battle by both keeping opponents off the glass and attacking the boards themselves. 

The ‘Bows check in at fourth in the Big West in opponent’s rebounds, meaning UH does a nice job of avoiding a loss in the rebounding battle. Hawai’i will look to junior Bernardo de Silva to clean up on the glass this weekend, alongside Hepa and Mor Seck, the 7’1” first-year center out of Prolific Prep in California, who has continued his growth in his consistently increasing minutes. 

Hot-Shooting Highlanders

UC Riverside comes to the islands on a hot streak, winning three straight games and knocking down 10 or more 3-pointers in two of the three. The Highlanders are tops among Big West programs in threes made this season, hitting 19 more triples than the next closest BW team.

Not only is UCR shooting well from long range, but the efficiency also continues inside the arc. Last time out against CSUN, UC Riverside shot 56.3% from the field in a 20-point win. While Olbrich has had a nice season for UCR, it was Flynn Cameron who won Big West conference player of the week. The graduate guard had 17 points and hit four 3-pointers in the Highlanders win over CSUN.

The ‘Bows, the top defensive team in the conference, forced the Highlanders into 6/22 shooting from 3-point range in the first meeting. Aided by the support of a lively (and continuously growing) Manoa crowd, Hawai’i looks to hold UCR to a similar result on Thursday. 

UH has held opponents to a 28.5% clip from long range this season. 

Don’t Look Now, It’s Our Last Time Home

Every season brings on a new iteration of a team, with different faces, triumphs and challenges. 

This iteration of the ‘Bows has a special place among the hearts of those they’ve come across, representing Hawai’i on big stages, including a nationally televised showdown against Big West rival UC Irvine.

The connection to Hawai’i goes deeper than just having the name on the chest.

The 2022-23 Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors start a pair of players with Hawaiian ties, with Kahuku graduate Samuta Avea and Texas transfer Kamaka Hepa, who has family originally from Kaua’i. 

“It’s not really something you can describe, it’s just something you feel once you do put that [University of Hawai’i] jersey on,” Hepa said Tuesday. “Not only being able to represent the team and UH athletics, but just to represent the entire culture of native Hawai’i is really big to me.” 

Hepa returned to his family’s roots after graduating with a 3.9 GPA from the University of Texas in three years, transferring to UH and immediately bringing a boon to the basketball program, both on and off the floor. 

“I wish I could coach him for way more than two years. He’s a rising star, he’s a late bloomer,” Ganot gushed about Hepa. “Look at the jump he made from the year before he got here to his first year and then this year. He’s incredible in the community, he’s obviously a tremendous student. That’s what you want your program to be about.”

Avea, a state champion at Kahuku and the former top-rated player in Hawai’i, completes his time in a ‘Bows uniform after six seasons of trials and tribulations that could break someone else’s spirit.

The guard injured his back in the 2021-22 preseason, forcing him to miss the entire campaign after opting out of the 2020-21 season. Following a three-year layoff, Avea worked his way back this season and is hitting his peak at the perfect time.

“I mean, six years [together]. He came back from back surgery,” Ganot smiled and reflected on Avea. “He hung in there when things weren’t so smooth, as naturally they shouldn’t be your first couple months [returning from injury], and now he’s playing his best basketball and I’m really happy for him. Those guys are a testament to what we are trying to do in our program.” 

Avea looks forward to the big home stand for the ‘Bows. With a pair of important games coming inside the friendly confines of the Stan Sheriff Center, the senior wing “couldn’t ask for anything more” with an opportunity to continue returning UH basketball to the heights it once saw.

“My ultimate goal is really to put basketball on the map for Hawai’i,” Avea said Tuesday. “So, for us to have the opportunity to go out there and do it on the national stage like [Saturday against UC Irvine], it’s really up to us to make it happen and hopefully we get some good noise behind us too.”

Though Juan Munoz has seen his Hawai’i career be far from what he expected, the injured guard has continued to bring positivity to the team after his preseason Achilles injury. 

“I don’t know if you could be more impactful, in terms of what we’re doing, without playing a game as Juan Munoz has been,” Ganot said of his injured graduate guard. “His attitude, his character he’s showing. Why are we gritty and tough and bouncing back? Well, he’s doing it at the highest level.” 

The graduate guard did mention that he may look into one more year of playing, though he did note that it would be unlikely that he would be granted the opportunity.

The University of Hawai’i men’s basketball program will honor Hepa, Avea and Munoz for senior night on Saturday, February 25 at the Stan Sheriff Center when the ‘Bows take on UC Irvine at 5 P.M. HST. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN2.