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HONOLULU – Laura Beeman said earlier in the week that she hadn’t allowed herself to think about the possibility of what a perfect week looked like leading up to a brand-new event that hoped to display the back-to-back Big West tournament champion Rainbow Wahine to the largest crowd in Beeman’s 12 seasons.
How could she? Her team had a high-quality Cal Poly squad coming to the islands on Thursday and an arguably even-better team in UC Santa Barbara to close out the week to worry about before she could think about postgame Saturday. Nonetheless, she was honored that the school would put on an entire evening in her name and even more excited at the prospect of an “electric atmosphere” for the young women representing the University of Hawai’i.
“Honestly, and I don’t know if you’re going to believe me or not, I haven’t thought about that trifecta [of beating Cal Poly, UCSB and setting the attendance record],” Beeman chuckled back on Tuesday. “If all of those things happen, ask me after that [UC Santa Barbara] game. I’m sure I’d be emotional about it.”
Well, she was.
The Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine (15-9, 12-3 Big West) completed the perfect trifecta Beeman alluded to on that Tuesday, outlasting the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (16-9, 10-5 Big West) in front of a Beeman-era record of 4,080 fans that entered through the turnstiles Saturday night, 68-64.
The goal had been set far in advance to try and break the attendance record for a single-game Rainbow Wahine contest under the longtime head coach of 3,491 fans in the building that came back on senior night for Hawai’i at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, her third at the helm of UH. The overall program record was set back in February of 1998 when 6,192 fans joined together to cheer on the Rainbow Wahine.
With the Beeman-era record of more than four thousand fans in the building for tip-off, Laura Beeman and the team knew they were in for a special night very early.
“Coming out from the locker room … walking out and hearing the ovation that the players got, and the staff got, I think at that moment I was like ‘Oh, this might be for real because there’s a lot of people here tonight,’” The 12th-year Hawai’i head coach smiled in her postgame press conference.
The packed Stan Sheriff Center crowd made an impact from the opening possession of the game as Hawai’i forced a shot-clock violation and followed it with Ashley Thoms finding Imani Perez for the game’s first points. UCSB responded with eight straight points as both Alexis Whitfield and Anya Choice got into the scorebook for the first time, watching some Hawai’i nerves on display as the Rainbow Wahine shots rimmed out.
The entrance of Daejah Phillips quickly changed UH’s fortunes as the junior guard rattled off 11 consecutive points for the Rainbow Wahine to suddenly ignite the jam-packed crowd’s energy, pushing Hawai’i out in front by five with 2:43 left. Her final bucket of the 11-point flurry also pushed the junior over the 1,000 career-point mark as the Las Vegas native became the 24th player in program history to eclipse the milestone.
“Daejah’s a winner,” Beeman simply stated about the star junior guard. “She doesn’t think about the moment, she is just in the moment and when you can play in the moment, you do extraordinary things. Daejah has a tendency to just be in the moment and do extraordinary things … In my entire career, she’s up at the top of kids that I’m proud of for their growth and just for how she loves her teammates, how she loves her staff and how she loves herself.”
Despite the pressure of Phillips and the loud crowd, the battle-tested Gauchos turned up the defensive heat to hold hosting Hawai’i scoreless for the remainder of the first quarter to send the game into the second quarter tied at 13.
Thoms put the Rainbow Wahine back in front by three with her first make of the night coming from behind the arc to start the second, but Whitfield had the answer a minute later to knot it up at 16. The Gauchos’ all-conference forward hit another triple three minutes later as UCSB went up by five ahead of the media timeout and forced a timeout from Hawai’i.
The break helped the Wahine stop the bleeding, coming out of the stoppage with three of the next four buckets to make it a two-point game with three minutes left in the first half before the continued hot shooting from long range for the visiting Gauchos saw a pair of 3-pointers drop through to push the lead back to eight.
Lily Wahinekapu, the team’s scoring leader this season, finally got on the board with a 3-pointer of her own with just over a minute before halftime that brought Hawai’i back within five and settled the nerves of everyone just a bit.
“I think the crowd got her a little bit in the first half,” Beeman said of the ‘Iolani alum and starting point guard for the Rainbow Wahine. “For whatever reason, the lights weren’t as bright for her in the second half, and she was able to get to the basket. You know, hit a big three, [too].”
Wahinekapu quickly took over to open the third quarter, rattling off five straight points to knot things at 32 before she found Olivia Davies on the right wing to put the Wahine out in front once again and force a timeout from UCSB’s head coach Bonnie Henrickson just 77 seconds into the second half.
Hawai’i continued the break-neck pace out of the locker rooms as Thoms got in on the long-range fun herself with a triple from the left corner out of the timeout, pushing UH ahead by six, 38-32. UCSB’s Choice and Whitfield got a pair of layups to go to bring the Gauchos back within a possession with 6:48 left in the third and took the lead two minutes later as Choice got to the cup again to make it 41-40 in favor of the visitors.
Whitfield drilled a three and got a tough turnaround to go to extend the Gauchos’ lead to five, 46-41, before an onslaught from the three-guard Hawai’i lineup of Phillips, Wahinekapu and McBee helped the Rainbow Wahine take a one-point advantage into the fourth, 48-47.
Wahinekapu and Hawai’i continued rolling to open the final frame as the guard scored five points in a row after Jacque David got the Rainbow Wahine to the 50-point mark to open the quarter and take an eight-point lead. UCSB guard Mary McMorris got a layup to drop in for the Gauchos’ first points of the fourth, coming more than two minutes into the action.
Again, Wahinekapu answered with five points in a row for UH, scoring 10 consecutive points for the Rainbow Wahine in total as the team maintained the eight-point advantage. After Phillips hit a pair of free throws, Thoms and Perez connected on a play identical to the start of the game to give Hawai’i an 11-point lead with 5:35 left to play and send the Stan Sheriff Center faithful into a frenzy.
Once more, the Gauchos’ 3-point marksmanship was on display as Choice and Jessica Grant hit back-to-back triples to pull UCSB back within five with four minutes remaining. Zoe Borter’s short jumper with 3:03 to play made it a three-point affair before UH’s Phillips calmly knocked down a couple free throws with 53 seconds left to make it five again.
Four straight missed free throws for Hawai’i put slight panic in the crowd after another three went down for Grant to pull the Gauchos within two with 29 seconds left, but MeiLani McBee sent the packed house of Rainbow Wahine fans home happy after icing the game with a pair of makes from the charity stripe – clinching the aforementioned “perfect trifecta” for Laura Beeman’s team.
FINAL: #HawaiiWBB 68, UC Santa Barbara 64.— Paul Brecht (@12brecht) February 18, 2024
Rainbow Wahine hold on in front of season-high 4,080 fans, avenge earlier L to Gauchos & keep sole possession of 1st in @BigWestSports.
Daejah Phillips w/ game-high 22pts on 50% FG, scores 1,000th career college point in win. pic.twitter.com/FQX2pWGBZk
So, what was it like for the head woman who had refused to imagine it a moment before the final buzzer?
“Obviously, a very memorable night for me personally. To have so many people come out… I know it was for these kids; I also know a bit of it was for me and that really, really means a lot to me. Twelve years I’ve been here; I miss my California family, but Hawai’i fills the hole pretty good. To have this many people here tonight… I promise you my mom was in tears on the couch watching this and just the tribute to this team and the program and the hard work,” an emotional, happy Laura Beeman said.
“I just cannot, I don’t have enough of the right words – *chuckle* I probably need [Spectrum Sports play-by-play talent Kanoa Leahey] for this – to just thank people and my appreciation just runs incredibly deep,” the longtime head coach continued.
UC Santa Barbara shot an astounding 41.4% from behind the 3-point arc across 29 attempts, perhaps the only sour taste left in the mouth of the Rainbow Wahine on an otherwise perfect night.
“As far as the game goes, we gave up 36 points from [3-point range]. That’s not something we do, we’re much better from behind the arc,” Beeman said of UH’s defense of the arc. “We need to figure some things out defensively, we’ve kind of stalled and we need to get back to much better defense.”
The Gauchos were led by another monster Whitfield double-double as the forward posted 21 points and 17 rebounds in a losing effort. Anya Choice and Jessica Grant each poured in 15 points for the visitors, combining for eight of the 12 3-pointers on the night for UCSB.
Daejah Phillips and Lily Wahinekapu combined for 42 points as the backcourt duo became the first pair of Rainbow Wahine players to score 20 or more points in a game since Amy Atwell and Kallin Spiller did it versus Portland State back on November 21, 2021. Phillips had a game-high 22 points as the junior moved into 23rd all-time on the Rainbow Wahine scoring ladder, passing Val Agee (‘89-’93) on a spectacular night.
“I thought Daejah Phillips had an amazing first half. She carried us, got her 1,000th point, which is pretty spectacular to do that in one of the biggest-attended games ever,” Laura Beeman beamed about the junior.
UH got an additional 10 points and eight rebounds from Imani Perez as the 6-foot-4 sophomore once again showed off her continued efficiency with a 5-of-9 night shooting from the floor.
With the win, the Rainbow Wahine continue to sit atop the entire Big West conference with a 12-3 record since league play began. Hawai’i stays half-a-game ahead of UC Irvine in the win column while holding the season tiebreaker against the Anteaters after the series sweep.
UH will return to action next Saturday, hitting the road for a matchup against Long Beach State in a rare one-game week for the Rainbow Wahine. Laura Beeman’s squad returns to the Stan Sheriff Center on February 29 to host UC Davis, one of three teams to beat the Wahine this season out of the Big West.
“I hope fans come back,” Beeman confessed. “I hope they see what we’re trying to build here and the excitement that was in this place… It was electric [tonight].”
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