Hawaii starts conference play, ends 2023 with 10-point win at Cal State Fullerton

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED DEC 30, 2023

Daejah who, vu, don’t be blue.

For the third consecutive season, Hawai’i women’s basketball has won their conference-opener. For the ninth straight time, Hawai’i women’s basketball has defeated Cal State Fullerton on the hardwood.

Jokes aside, the Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine (4-6, 1-0 Big West) closed out the 2023 calendar year in style, picking up a road conference win by taking down Cal State Fullerton (5-7, 1-1 Big West) on the mainland Saturday afternoon, 59-49. The victory also was the first road win of the year for the Rainbow Wahine, who had previously fallen at #2 UCLA, #9 Stanford and a Santa Clara squad that sits at 12-3 heading into 2024 in three previous road contests. 

More impressive, UH did so without the services of one their leading scorers in guard Daejah Phillips, who did not suit up for the conference-opener for the Rainbow Wahine. Phillips could be seen on the end of the bench, engaged in the game and cheering on teammates despite missing her first game of the year. 

It looked like Hawai’i would struggle without the shot-making prowess of the junior early on as CSU Fullerton held the ‘Bows scoreless for the game’s first four minutes before UH’s Kelsie Imai got a layup to go to get the visitors on the board to provide a spark. 

The spark quickly turned into flames as MeiLani McBee and Ashley Thoms drained back-to-back triples to push Hawai’i in front, 8-4, with 4:11 remaining in the opening frame. The Rainbow Wahine flexed the defensive tenacity that has become a calling card in the past two Big West-winning seasons by allowing just one basket in the final six minutes of the first quarter and extending the lead to 13-6 after 10 minutes of action — forcing seven Titans’ turnovers in the process. 

The complimentary basketball on both sides of the court for Hawai’i trickled into the second quarter as Lily Wahinekapu’s steal and score opened action in the period and set the tone for the Rainbow Wahine to grow the advantage to a game-high 14 points ahead of halftime after another steal and score by Wahinekapu with seven seconds left in the first half. 

Hawai’i’s Imai led the charge through 20 minutes for the Rainbow Wahine, filling up the box sheet with eight points, four steals and three assists off the bench to help fill the void felt by the loss of usual “Energizer-Bunny” in Phillips. Thoms came off the pine for UH as well and added a game-best nine points on a perfect 3-of-3 shooting from distance in the first half. 

Cal State Fullerton used a pair of Fujika Nimmo makes from range to open the second half quickly, going on a 7-0 run in just two minutes of game action to cut the Hawai’i lead in half and force a timeout. The momentum shift continued through the break in the action with another Nimmo triple to cut it to four before UH’s Brooklyn Rewers got a look inside to go for the ‘Bows first points since the break. 

The Titans brought it within two before Thoms drilled her career-best fourth three-pointer of the contest to give the Rainbow Wahine breathing room with a five-point lead with 5:11 left in the quarter. After Nimmo cut it to a one-possession game again, it would be McBee with the “Midas Touch” from distance putting Hawai’i up by six with 3:28 left in the third quarter, 41-35. The teams traded late-shot clock makes to close out the quarter, but it was the visiting Rainbow Wahine leading by five with 10 minutes left in regulation. 

When it turned to winning time, the battle-tested ‘Bows (both from past seasons and the challenging non-conference schedule) turned up the defensive heat again, holding CSU Fullerton without a point for the first six minutes and 52 seconds of the fourth while extending the lead into double-digits for the first time since the opening moments of the second half. CSU-Fullerton’s Ashlee Lewis ended the scoring drought for the Titans, but it was too little, too late for the hosts, who dropped to 1-1 in conference play. 

Hawai’i, who has seen rebounding struggles throughout the first nine games, won the battle on the glass versus CSU Fullerton, 42-33, while flexing an impressive bench unit that produced 25 of 59 points for UH.

CSU-Fullerton was led by Nimmo’s game-high 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting from long range, though the guard was just 6-for-17 overall from the floor. The Titans committed 15 turnovers on the afternoon, though just five came after halftime. 

Hawai’i’s Ashley Thoms had a season-high 12 points on the career-best four three-pointers off the bench in the win. Junior guard Kelsie Imai finished with nine points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals and was a +13 in her 23 minutes off the bench, helping the Rainbow Wahine finish 2023 on the right foot and head into 2024 flying high (and back to the islands) with a win.