UH guard MeiLani McBee handles the ball in a Feb. 1 game against Cal State Fullerton. McBee had a team-high 14 points two days later in a win against UC Irvine. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

Hawai’i remains hot, grabs season sweep of UC Irvine behind McBee’s strong 2nd half

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED FEB 3, 2024

HONOLULU — Not bad practice before “Beeman’s Big Bash” for UH. 

In a fight for first place in the Big West, the Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine (12-8, 9-2 Big West) muscled past the UC Irvine Anteaters, 55-43, Saturday night inside SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center to take sole possession of first place in the conference. 

UH entered the night tied atop the league with UCI (14-7, 8-3 Big West), excited for another chance to defend home court in front of over 1,500 fans and avenge last season’s overtime loss inside the Stan to the Anteaters. The young women responded with an inspired defensive effort against a physical UC Irvine squad, tying the second lowest point total against the Rainbow Wahine since BWC play started. 

“We love Hawai’i, we love playing for our fans and when we can do what we’re supposed to do on our home court, that means a lot to our kids,” Hawai’i head coach Laura Beeman said of her squad after moving to 6-0 inside the friendly confines of Mānoa since Big West play began and 8-3 overall at SimpliFi Arena this season. 

Hawai’i guard Olivia Davies opened the scoring with a left-wing triple, banking in the try to give the lead to the hometown Rainbow Wahine just a minute into action. UCI responded in turn, rattling off the next six points to take a 6-3 lead with 4:59 remaining in the opening quarter. Freshman guard Jade Peacock would end a near-six-minute scoring drought for UH with a pair of free throws before the Rainbow Wahine jumped back ahead 25 seconds later as Daejah Phillips went coast-to-coast and dropped in a layup over the front of the iron to make it 7-6.  

In all, the Rainbow Wahine closed the opening frame on a 10-3 run behind their defense and quality foul shooting to take a 13-9 lead into the second. 

UH’s dynamic backcourt of Phillips and Lily Wahinekapu continued to produce on the offensive end, trading turns creating points for the Rainbow Wahine as the advantage grew as large as 10 not even midway through the second quarter. Hawai’i would maintain around the double-digit lead up until right before halftime when UCI’s Nikki Tom stole away a Davies pass and quickly pushed it ahead to Deja Lee for a layup to beat the clock and bring the Anteaters within nine at the break, 27-18.  

Star sophomore forward Imani Perez, back from a one-game absence due to personal reasons, got the Hawai’i scoring going once again to open the third quarter by draining a mid-range jumper from the top of the key to make it an 11-point lead before back-to-back buckets from Lee brought the visitors back within seven.

After seeing the Hawai’i lead go back up to 11, UC Irvine head coach Tamara Inoue and staff decided to employ a 2-2-1 zone press, slowing down the Rainbow Wahine offense enough to cut the margin down to six with two and a half minutes left in the period — enough to make for an awkwardly-anxious crowd inside the Stan Sheriff Center. 

Laura Beeman’s battle-tested squad did not flinch despite the ever-shrinking lead, responding calmly with a Davies drive-and-kick to a wide open Wahinekapu for a much-needed three-pointer to give UH a nine-point lead heading into the final 10 minutes. 

The Rainbow Wahine opened the final frame with a continued hot hand from long range as MeiLani McBee showed off the quick trigger on a pair of threes and Perez got the hoop-and-harm to extend to a 14-point lead for UH.

“Great to have Imani back,” Beeman smiled admitting postgame. “We needed her as much as she needed us.” 

Despite the Anteaters’ best efforts, UCI’s 0-of-15 night from long distance and the Rainbow Wahine’s defensive grit saw Hawai’i close out the victory, 55-43. 

“We knew it was going to be physical, it was physical the first time [against UC Irvine],” Perez said postgame. “[Coach Beeman] says that we need to be the aggressor and I feel like our team was really ready to take hits today and we knew what they were coming out with.” 

The hard-fought battle resulted in 37 free throws being taken between the two squads and likely just as many bruises from block-outs underneath the basket as the Rainbow Wahine dominated the glass, 44-32.  

“Like I said on Thursday, they are an aggressive team, and we knew we needed to be aggressive, and I think we capitalized on it today,” McBee added. 

McBee led the way in scoring for Hawai’i, dropping all 14 of her points in the second half while collecting seven rebounds along the way. UH’s Wahinekapu added 11 points while Perez piled up 10 points to go along with six boards in her return. 

UCI’s Deja Lee led all scorers with 21 points on 9-of-19 shooting, racking up four steals on the night. No other UC Irvine player broke the double-digit threshold for points as Hawai’i held the Anteaters to just 25% (16-of-64 FG) shooting from the floor overall. 

UH hits the road once again next week for a two-game trip, facing off with UC San Diego for the second time this season before stopping by UC Davis. Hawai’i was a 64-52 winner over UCSD back on January 20 at home and enters the game as the lone team atop the Big West totem pole.