(Photo credit: hawaiiathletics.com)

Pullin’s Hot 2nd Half Helps UC Riverside Hand ‘Bows Critical Big West Loss

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED FEB 24, 2023

MANOA — The defensive game plan for Hawai’i was perfect for taking on UC Riverside, until it suddenly wasn’t.

The University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team fell Thursday night at home, as Zyon Pullin scored 18 points in the second-half to propel UC Riverside to a key Big West win over the ‘Bows.

“This hurts right now,” Rainbow Warriors head coach Eran Ganot said following the loss. “I expect us to bounce back like we have all year, but we had a moment we could have made our next step and we did not.”

The ‘Bows turned in one of the team’s best defensive halves of the year during the first 20 minutes, holding the visiting Highlanders to 19% shooting from the field and 0-10 from 3-point range to head into the locker rooms leading, 25-14.

The Hawai’i defense, which has been a staple of the ‘Bows success all season, kept UCR scoreless over the final 5:28 of the first half. While UH lost the rebounding battle at UC Riverside, it was clear that holding the Highlanders to one shot was an area of focus for the Rainbow Warriors this time around.

UH won the rebounding battle in the first half, finishing a plus-8 on the glass as the ‘Bows matched the taller Highlanders’ physicality to fight for 50/50 balls.  

Biggest of all, Hawai’i had kept the three-headed monster of Lachlan Olbrich, Flynn Cameron and Pullin mostly quiet. The trio scored 12 points in the first half, shooting a combined 5-of-21 from the field as the ‘Bows built a double-digit advantage over UCR. 

“The game was separated when we were up ten,” Ganot said. “It comes down to, in all of [the similar losses] and tonight again, lack of discipline and lack of unity, which is very unlike us.” 

The lack of discipline and unity Ganot referred to manifested itself in the second half in the form of turnovers and rebounding assignment breakdowns, coupled with UCR’s Pullin catching fire from the floor. 

The momentum shifted fully in favor of the visiting Highlanders when the shots from long range began to fall, and second-chance points came on the misses. The ‘Bows allowed 6 offensive rebounds in the second half and three 3-pointers on just seven 2nd half attempts as UCR crept ahead with the clock ticking under seven minutes.

Pullin, who had gotten going with a couple of easy buckets in transition, played the role of closer for UC Riverside to seal the victory. After an offensive struggle in the first half, the senior guard just needed the confidence of seeing a couple of shots go through the net.

“What happens with good players, when [they] make some easy baskets, sometimes [they] makes some tough shots,” Ganot said, praising Pullin postgame. “He made fadeaways, he’s done that, he’s a heckuva player, credit to him. A lot of respect for him, his toughness, his grit.”

Pullin poured in 18 points in the second half, hitting pull-up jump shots over defenders and finishing around the rim. When Pullin couldn’t find the bottom of the net in the 2nd half, Olbrich was there to put back any misses. 

The Highlanders took a lead as big as six points with 3:23 remaining, but a Noel Coleman 3-pointer, followed by a finish in transition by Hepa, cut the UCR lead to 51-50 with 1:46 left in regulation. 

Following a UCR timeout, Wil Tattersal finished off a look underneath the basket to put the visitors back up by three points. The ‘Bows answered right back with a bucket of their own, as Hepa dished off to Bernardo de Silva to make it a one-point game with 1:21 to play.

Hawai’i got the stop on the ensuing possession, as Coleman blocked a Pullin shot attempt, allowing Ganot and his staff to call timeout and draw up a play for the lead.

Some good ball movement led to a Hepa try from long range, but the shot was off the mark and rebounded by Olbrich, who was fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one.

The first-year center calmly cashed the first to give UCR a two-point lead, 54-52, but missed the second free throw, giving the ‘Bows one last chance to tie or take the lead. After a McClanahan shot was blocked out of bounds, Hepa was fouled on the inbound with 1.5 seconds remaining and went to the line for a one-and-one opportunity of his own and a chance to tie the game. 

“Yeah, it did,” Hepa responded postgame when asked if the first foul shot he took felt good off his hand. “It felt like every other free throw I’ve shot this year.”

Hepa’s free throw would fall short and be rebounded by UC Riverside, as the ‘Bows lost in heartbreaking fashion, 54-52. 

“I’m completely disappointed,” Hepa said. “Not with my team, but with myself, obviously. I think we just [have to] go practice tomorrow and figure it out. We’ve got one game left here and [we’ve] got to try and go get that one.” 

Despite having chances down the stretch to tie or win and not capitalizing, Ganot made it a point to have his players’ backs in his postgame comments.

“It’s never down to the [last] play,” Ganot said. “Give me Kamaka at the free-throw line or shooting a big shot every day. Give me Noel [Coleman], give me ‘Von [McClanahan], give me all those guys.”

Pullin led all scorers, finishing the night with 24 points on 11-19 shooting. Olbrich chipped in 13 points to go along with 10 rebounds for the Highlanders, who now sit half-a-game behind UC Irvine for the top spot in the Big West. With the victory tonight, UCR clinched the program’s first 20-win season.

Bernardo de Silva paced the ‘Bows, scoring 15 points and pulling down six rebounds, while Hepa contributed 14 points and eight rebounds in the loss to the Highlanders.

Hawai’i will host UC Irvine on Saturday, February 25 at 5 PM HST in the final home game of the season for the men’s basketball team. The team will honor seniors Kamaka Hepa, Samuta Avea and Juan Munoz for their contributions to the UH men’s basketball program.  

The game will be nationally televised on ESPN2.