Hawai’i Big West three-peat dreams dashed by UC Davis in semifinal loss, 51-48

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED MAR 15, 2024

“We picked a bad day to have a bad day.” 

Laura Beeman quickly stated the obvious following top-seeded Hawai’i’s semifinal Big West Tournament loss to #5 UC Davis on Friday. The Aggies’ stifling defense held the Rainbow Wahine to the team’s lowest scoring output since the conference play began, squeaking by Hawai’i 51-48 to advance to the Big West Tournament Championship. 

“I thought [UC Davis] played a very, very good game and to play three games in a row the way they did – they hit big shots when they needed to, they hit free throws when they needed to and they got stops when they needed to,” the 12th-year Hawai’i head coach opened her postgame statements with. “[UC Davis head coach Jennifer Gross] and her staff do a fantastic job so first off, I want to congratulate them.” 

The fifth-seeded Aggies made a return to the Big West Tournament championship game after a two-year absence by holding the Rainbow Wahine to 16-of-52 shooting from the floor, drilling 11 3-pointers on the other side – many of which came in swing moments of the game – to win their third game in as many days. The loss stops Hawai’i’s quest to become the first program to three-peat as Big West conference tournament champions since UC Santa Barbara did it nine times in a row from 1997-2005 but will not end the season as UH expects to receive selection into the inaugural NCAA Women’s Basketball Invitation Tournament after winning the Big West regular season title. 

The offense actually started quickly for Hawai’i, who waited and watched the first two days of the tournament after securing a double-bye as a top-two finisher in regular season play. Lily Wahinekapu knocked down her first jumper of the day to open the scoring and Ashley Thoms followed it up by banking in a 3-pointer to give the Rainbow Wahine a 5-0 lead in the blink of an eye. 

UC Davis forward Tova Sabel finally got the fifth-seed on the board at the 7:27 mark of the 1st quarter by draining her first 3-pointer of the day, foreshadowing the Aggies’ upcoming marksmanship from behind the arc. 

Jacque David and MeiLani McBee both finished strong around the rim for their first points of the game, extending Hawai’i’s lead to six by the 6:15 mark, 9-3. Again, UC Davis hit a triple to pull within a possession as Evanne Turner cashed in from deep. 

After a 12-minute break in the action after the 1st quarter media timeout due to a shot-clock malfunction above one of the baskets, play resumed with Hawai’i’s offense suddenly sputtering. The Rainbow Wahine could not scrape across another basket as the Aggies pulled within one by the end of the opening frame, 9-8. 

McBee provided some breathing room for Hawai’i by drilling a 3-pointer, sparking a 9-2 run that saw David and Big West 6th Player of the Year Daejah Phillips also get in on the long-range fun to push UH’s lead up to eight with 5:21 left in the 1st half, 18-10. 

UC Davis caught fire from distance to close the half, draining four 3-pointers over the final 3:11 of the 2nd quarter, including a 23-footer by Mazatlan Harris from straight away to beat the shot clock. That final three gave the Aggies the lead for the first time all game, 23-20, with six seconds left before the break and entered the locker rooms leading by that trifecta after UH’s answer was called off because it didn’t leave David’s hand before the buzzer sounded. 

“We just didn’t make adjustments on offense like we needed to earlier in the game and I thought the way we closed out the 1st half was very poor defensively,” a disappointed Laura Beeman said. 

Hawai’i’s scoring drought continued for the opening three minutes of the 3rd quarter until Phillips rolled in a close-range look to keep UH within a score with 6:36 left in the frame. Things did not improve for the Rainbow Wahine in the ensuing minutes as Phillips suffered a lower leg injury with 4:52 left, exiting to the locker room as Hawai’i fell behind by nine after Harris drilled another triple. 

UC Davis extended the lead all the way to 13 with two and a half minutes remaining in the 3rd as Sabel drained another three and split a pair of free throws before Hawai’i finally re-settled and returned fire with a 12-2 to close the quarter and enter the final 10 minutes trailing by just three. 

“We’ve played all year unhealthy, we’ve played all year down,” Beeman said of her team’s resilience after Phillips went down. “We knew [Daejah] wasn’t coming back but whether she came back or not, this team has fought all year long and they put themselves in position to win all year long and that wasn’t going to change because we got down.” 

Hawai’i took a 40-39 lead with 7:40 left in regulation after Kelsie Imai’s perfect trip to the charity stripe, but the advantage was short-lived as UC Davis strung off the next four points to re-take a three-point lead. UH’s McBee spun home a tough reverse layup to pull back within one with 5:12 remaining and swatted away a transition layup, trying to will the ‘Bows to stay in it after taking some critical blows. 

The Rainbow Wahine would take one final lead, 48-46, with 1:17 left after Wahinekapu went 2-for-2 at the foul line as Hawai’i gave themselves a chance to advance to Saturday’s Big West Conference tournament championship game despite playing one of the sloppiest games in recent memory. 

The three-peat dreams slipped away 20 seconds later as UC Davis drilled the team’s 11th triple of the night, coming from Turner to jump ahead by one with under a minute left. Despite a chance at the line to tie or take the lead for Wahinekapu, the junior’s nightmare afternoon bounced along as both shots rolled out and Jacque David’s desperation heave to tie at the final horn was tipped as Hawai’i watched the fifth-seeded Aggies celebrate their third win in three days and second upset in 48 hours, 51-48. 

“We just had kids who did not have their typical game,” Beeman reflected postgame. “We have two of our top scorers go 1-for-21, it’s tough to win a ballgame. Daejah Phillips gets 10 minutes between fouls and an injury … it was a bad day to play bad basketball.” 

UC Davis actually shot worse than Hawai’i, being held to just 29% shooting over 52 shots but hit 11-of-26 from behind the arc to make up the difference on the margins. Aggies’ junior guard Tova Sabel led the fifth seed with 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting, three of the makes coming from 3-point range. Evanne Turner and Mazatlan Harris both finished in double figures with 13 points apiece, combining for six makes from long distance to push UC Davis into the championship for the first time since 2021. 

MeiLani McBee left it all on the floor by leading Hawai’i through an ugly offensive game, scoring 12 points on an efficient 5-of-7 performance (2/2 3PT) and adding four rebounds and four steals for the Rainbow Wahine. UH junior forward Jacque David added 11 points and six rebounds off the bench in 24 minutes for Laura Beeman’s squad, who now must recalibrate as the program looks for the first postseason tournament (non-Big West) win this century for the Rainbow Wahine program. 

“It’s just going to hurt,” David said of the loss for UH. “Mentally, we just have to get back and recalibrate like Coach Beeman says because we’re not done. We still have another tournament, more games.” 

With their outright claim to the regular season Big West champions, Hawai’i clinched an automatic berth into the new WBIT following the final buzzer on Friday. Beeman spoke candidly about how UH could not dwell on the performance and had more to accomplish in a wonderful season to date. 

The WBIT is set to run all the way through the quarterfinals from March 21-March 28 before the remaining four programs coverage at Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis for the semifinals (April 1) and championship (April 3). 

“It’s what sports do to you, they challenge you,” said an eerily-locked in Beeman. “They put you in positions that you don’t want to be in, and you can either quit or you can grow. We have a very young team; we have everyone coming back but two. We need this postseason experience; we have not won a postseason game before.”