HENDERSON, Nev. — The emotional joyride and story that is the 2022-2023 Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine basketball team reached another peak on Saturday.
As the Gauchos’ desperation heave at the horn bounced off the rim, emotion overcame the ‘Bows team that had just achieved the same feat just a year prior with a totally different cast.
Hawai’i, a group that had lost multiple key rotation players due to season-ending injuries, took down UC Santa Barbara, 61-59, for the team’s second consecutive Big West Tournament championship.
The ‘Bows punched their ticket for the second straight year to the NCAA Tournament, something that would have seemed like an absurd statement after losing multiple starters throughout the season. The resilience and toughness of the Rainbow Wahine only continued to show as the team finally learned to close out games.
What a comeback! What a story! Champs! 🏆#GoBows #SISTAHHOOD pic.twitter.com/yPxmdd4ka9— Hawai‘i Women's Basketball (@HawaiiWBB) March 12, 2023
The first 20 minutes of Saturday’s Big West Championships finale was anything but easy for the ‘Bows.
All-Big West selections Ila Lane and Alexis Tucker, UCSB’s dynamic duo that had powered the Gauchos to the title game, controlled the game on the glass and with their hot shooting as UC Santa Barbara jumped out to a seven-point lead through one quarter.
The opening period saw Hawai’i struggle to stop the Gauchos offense, as Tucker was nearly unstoppable to the tune of 10 points in the first 10 minutes.
Big part of the scoring for UCSB?— Paul Brecht (@12brecht) March 11, 2023
Alexis Tucker w/ 10 points already. Big West 1st Team selection has had a big tournament and continues today. #OnlyTheBold
The ‘Bows 1st quarter struggles were only exacerbated by stud wing Daejah Phillips being whistled for two quick fouls, which sent the Las Vegas native to the bench for the rest of the first half.
The Gauchos, who took out red-hot UC Davis in the quarterfinals before dispatching Big West “Cinderella” CSU Bakersfield in the semifinals, shot 50% from 3-point range in the opening quarter en route to a 22-15 advantage after 10 minutes of play.
The 2nd quarter saw more of the same, as UCSB continued to shoot well from the field and Hawai’i did not. The Gauchos doubled-up the ‘Bows in the second, 16-8, to take a 15-point lead into the locker rooms as UC Santa Barbara looked to avenge the loss suffered a week prior.
HALFTIME IN HENDERSON@UCSB_WBB - 38@HawaiiWBB - 23— Paul Brecht (@12brecht) March 11, 2023
Gauchos end half on 7-2 run, head into locker room up 15. Tucker w/ 15 for Santa Barbara, who is shooting 45% from deep as a team.
‘Bows being out-rebounded by 10 and shooting just 35% from the floor. #OnlyTheBold
For any fan who had watched the Rainbow Wahine this season, they knew that the game was far from over despite the grim outlook halfway through.
For a team who has lost key player after key player to injury this season and continued to succeed, a 15-point halftime deficit was not anything to flinch at. The ‘Bows knew they needed to stay the course, stick together and they would make their run back.
“We were down last year [in the Big West championship] at halftime too and that’s when experience really comes in,” graduate forward Kallin Spiller said postgame. “We went into that locker room and had that same re-grouping mentality and talked about how we were going to stay together through adversity. That’s what this team has done all season, on the court and off the court we’ve stuck together.”
There was a shift in momentum with under seven minutes to play in the 3rd quarter, as Phillips checked back in for the first time since the opening minutes of the game.
Hawai’i starting to put together stops and scores, cutting it to 44-33 with under 4 left in the 3rd quarter.— Paul Brecht (@12brecht) March 12, 2023
Defense finally starting to look more active for ‘Bows and getting some good looks down low. Would like to see them capitalize on Lane’s absence due to foul trouble.
As soon as she touched the floor, Hawai’i went on a 9-2 run to cut the lead to single digits once again. The Gauchos began to trade baskets with the ‘Bows in the final minute of the quarter and a pair of Tucker free throws gave UCSB a 10-point lead going into the final frame.
An 11-5 Hawai’i run, sparked by Phillips’ hot shooting from downtown and then a tough step back 3-pointer from Lily Wahinekapu cut the Gaucho lead to four with 6:30 to play and forced a timeout.
UC Santa Barbara tried to hold off the ‘Bows for as long as possible, but Hawai’i took the team’s first lead since the opening minutes of the game on a Wahinekapu layup with 1:21 left in regulation.
🚨 'Bows have the lead!!!!!! 🚨 pic.twitter.com/EXAKHFfSqU— Hawai‘i Women's Basketball (@HawaiiWBB) March 12, 2023
The Gauchos would go to their best scorer and one of the biggest stars of the entire tournament, Alexis Tucker, who got fouled with 6 seconds to go and cashed in on both free throws to give UCSB the lead, 59-58.
A timeout by Coach Beeman advanced the ball to the front court, and a second timeout after good ball denial from the Gauchos gave Hawai’i one last chance to calm themselves and do what they had struggled to do until the final month of the season: finish the game.
The ‘Bows did exactly that, running a picture-perfect give-and-go from Imani Perez to a cutting Phillips, who scored the layup through contact and drew the foul to give Hawai’i a two-point lead with 3.4 seconds remaining.
“We’ve worked that play that we ran at the end of the game every day, that’s one of our plays,” Beeman smiled while sharing postgame. “And they executed it brilliantly.”
A timeout from UC Santa Barbara advanced the ball to the front court for one more chance, but good ball denial from Hawai’i forced the Gauchos to go away from Tucker and see Choice have to chuck up a prayer from long distance that went off iron and was no good.
#BACK2BACK BABY‼️‼️‼️ @HawaiiWBB overcomes a 15-point deficit at halftime to beat UCSB 61-59 and win the @BigWestSports title! pic.twitter.com/qjaIF278CP— Ku'ulei (@KuuleiAgbayani) March 12, 2023
An emotional ride for the Rainbow Wahine had paid off in a trip to the NCAA Tournament, officially, in that moment with a 61-59 win.
More Than a Team
Everything about the 2022-23 Rainbow Wahine basketball team suggests that they are so much more than just another iteration of Hawai’i basketball.
Coming into the season as the defending champions of the Big West tournament, the ‘Bows had to adjust to the loss of the Big West’s Player of the Year selection Amy Atwell due to graduation. On top of that, many young pieces would be stepping into bigger roles for Beeman and her staff.
As if those challenges were not enough, injuries to key players on the Rainbow Wahine roster continued to happen as the season progressed. Unfortunately for the ‘Bows, as their season continued, their injured teammates’ ability to play would be shelved to next year.
Three starters and more rotation players down, Hawai’i had to look themselves in the mirror and decide what the team wanted the season to be. A tough start to the season did not mean the end of the season, but if things were going to turn around, it needed to happen soon.
The young ‘Bows were forced to grow up quickly, bonding closer with each other with every passing day. As the team grew closer, their ability to be honest and give feedback improved. Each day was the team helping one another get better.
One issue continued to plague the team though: finishing games against top-level competition.
The ‘Bows had lost a pair of heartbreakers to the Big West’s top two seeds, UC Irvine and Long Beach State, despite having chances to put away each team.
“I think one of the pivotal points was after we lost the game on a last-second shot and we said, ‘we have to grow up and finish games’,” Beeman reflected on the journey of the season to this point. “[We] do that, you’ll win a championship.”
Then, it finally clicked in the final few weeks. It truly came on display last Saturday, March 4 against UCSB. Heading into the final frame in a dogfight, the ‘Bows decided they would not leave the Stan Sheriff that night without making sure they had finished as top dog.
The result was a 10-point win for the Rainbow Wahine, clinching the third seed as the team headed to Henderson, Nevada to defend their crown.
BACK TO BACK. 🏆🏀@HawaiiWBB wins their second consecutive Big West Women's Basketball Championship with a 61-59 win over UC Santa Barbara. #OnlyTheBold x #GoBows pic.twitter.com/uxo5wOe6eg— The Big West (@BigWestSports) March 12, 2023
The team was tested in the quarterfinals, as Cal State Fullerton gave the ‘Bows everything they could handle in a double-overtime game that saw Hawai’i survive. A rematch with Long Beach in the semifinals allowed for the Rainbow Wahine to avenge an earlier loss on the way to the championship.
A 15-point halftime deficit was just another notch in the ‘Bows championship belt.
“They never lost faith in each other, they never lost faith in our process,” Beeman gleamed talking about her team.
“[Dollar Loans Center] really feels like a home gym and that’s because of our fans, because of [the Hawai’i Pep Band], because of cheer, because of everyone who flew from the islands to support us,” Spiller chimed in. “Those are the people that we play for.”
LET’S GO ‘BOWS 🏆🌈🏀@HIsportsradio @SportingTrib pic.twitter.com/isD9FrFDmQ— Ku'ulei (@KuuleiAgbayani) March 12, 2023
The Rainbow Wahine now await their first-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament after securing an automatic bid to the big dance. Selection Sunday begins on March 12 at 2:00 P.M. HST.
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