Brown, Paulsen power PLNU to 2nd half comeback, halt UH-Hilo run in PacWest Semifinals

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED MAR 8, 2024

SAN DIEGO, CA – So close. 

The University of Hawai’i-Hilo Vulcans saw the season end Friday afternoon as the fifth-seeded squad watched a double-digit halftime lead disappear to tournament hosts and top overall seed Point Loma (21-8, 15-5 PacWest), falling in the PacWest Men’s Basketball Championships’ semifinal round, 74-69. 

The Vulcans (19-12, 12-8 PacWest), who picked up the program’s first win in the conference tournament event that has gone on since 2013 on Thursday, opened the semifinals similar to their quarterfinal start by scoring six of the game’s first eight points to take a 6-2 lead just over four minutes into action. 

The nice start for the lower-seeded UH-Hilo continued through the first media timeout, going up by five after Zoar Nedd drilled a long-range shot before seeing PLNU tie the game at nine-all. Nedd gave the lead right back to the Vulcans with a short jumper to make it 11-9 and helped grow the lead back to four a few minutes later with his second three-ball of the day. 

The return of 2nd-team All-PacWest selection Carlos Ramsey Jr. boosted the Vulcans lead even more as the southpaw shooting guard rattled off five points in a row to make it a 25-14 advantage for UH-H with under eight minutes left in the opening half of play. Kaniela Aiona’s squad carried that momentum through the end of the period, staving off a PLNU run that brought the Sea Lions back within a possession by answering with an impressive run of their own to enter the break leading, 38-27. 

A switch to a zone defense by Point Loma to begin the 2nd half proved to be a heady move by 1st year head coach Justin Downer as the Sea Lions – behind 13 consecutive points from forward Wynton Brown to open the half – quickly sliced the Vulcans’ lead to three, 43-40, just three minutes and forty seconds out of the break. 

UH-Hilo clung to the lead, answering back with a short run of their own that was capped by a Jake Kosakowski triple to push the lead back to nine with 11 minutes left in regulation. Point Loma would respond once again, showing off true championship resolve behind Seattle Pacific transfer Zack Paulsen, a 1st-team All PacWest selection and the conference’s Newcomer of the Year winner. 

The junior guard assisted on a Nick Watkins triple before Luke Smith strung off five straight points. Then, it was Paulsen’s show. 

The 6-foot-4 guard drained a deep three to bring the Sea Lions within two, 60-58, with six minutes left to play and seemingly shifted the momentum back in the favor of the regular season co-champions. Brown dropped home a layup to knot the game at 60 and Paulsen re-tied the game on the next possession with a pull up of his own. 

He delivered the Sea Lions’ first lead since the game’s opening moments two minutes after tying it at 62, getting another short jumper to fall to push PLNU ahead with three minutes remaining. 

Another 3-pointer from Smith pushed the lead to five for the Sea Lions before UH-Hilo guard Charles Elzie III answered quickly with a drive to the rim to make it a one-possession game, 67-64. Another Paulsen finish gave the five-point advantage back to Point Loma with 90 seconds left in regulation, giving the breathing room needed for the Sea Lions to hold on as Paulsen and Brown went a perfect 4-of-4 from the charity stripe to ice it, 74-69. 

Point Loma was paced by Brown’s 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the floor as the Sea Lions advance to their second consecutive PacWest Championships title game. Zack Paulsen poured in 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the win as the PacWest Newcomer of the Year attempts to deliver back-to-back titles to PNLU. 

UH-Hilo’s Kalique Mitchell finished his collegiate career by leading the Vulcans in scoring, dropping 16 points to go with eight rebounds as the fifth-seeded squad dropped out in the semifinals of the tournament. Nadjrick Peat and Carlos Ramsey Jr. both added 12 points apiece in the loss, though both are expected to return to another talented Vulcans team next year. 

Point Loma will face #6 seed Azusa Pacific on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. HT, looking to win back-to-back conference titles despite major injuries up and down the roster.