Pepper, UC Davis holds off furious Hawai’i comeback attempt to advance to Big West championship

Pepper, UC Davis holds off furious Hawai’i comeback attempt to advance to Big West championship

Pepper, UC Davis holds off furious Hawai’i comeback attempt to advance to Big West championship

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED MAR 15, 2024

Too little, too late. 

After falling down by as much as 17 in the 2nd half, fifth-seeded Hawai’i gave second-seeded UC Davis a scare in the final minutes as the ‘Bows had a shot to take the lead with five seconds to play that bounced off back iron, allowing the Aggies to escape to Saturday’s Big West Tournament championship against Long Beach State. 

Hawai’i, coming off a 75-68 victory over #7 CSUN on Thursday, started slowly as UC Davis raced out to an 11-2 lead out of the gates behind the hot shooting of the three-guard lineup of Kane Milling, Ty Johnson and Big West Player of the Year winner Elijah Pepper. The Aggies continued to flex the offensive fire power by hitting nine of the first 12 attempts from the field en route to a 20-6 lead after eight minutes of action. 

The ‘Bows shook off the slow start to stick around, cutting the UC Davis lead to three with a 18-7 run over the next four minutes of game action behind a litany of Rainbow Warriors finding their touch from the field as UH drilled a pair of triples and attacked the rim far better than early on. 

Back-to-back Munoz 3-pointers brought Hawai’i within two and the 8th-year guard whipped a pass to Bernardo de Silva for a two-handed dunk to end the opening half keeping UH down a pair, 31-29. 

The 2nd half began similar to the first for Hawai’i, watching another sizzling UC Davis offensive spurt with a 17-2 run out of the break leading to a game-high 17-point lead for the Aggies after Pablo Tamba finished an alley-oop lob from Elijah Pepper with 13:57 left to play. 

Following a 30-second timeout from head coach Eran Ganot, Hawai’i’s offense settled once again as Ryan Rapp drained a straight away triple for the ‘Bows first field goal of the 2nd half. Justin McKoy scored the next four points before Munoz drilled another 3-pointer for Hawai’i, but UH continued struggling getting stops against UC Davis as the margin remained 17 through the 10:47 mark of the 2nd half. 

A 7-0 Hawai’i run in a blink of an eye brought the ‘Bows back within ten after Akira Jacobs drilled his 2nd 3-pointer of the evening before making his third and fourth foul shots of the season to make it 58-48 UC Davis with 8:31 left to play. While the deficit remained around double-digits until the three-minute mark for Hawai’i, the ‘Bows had their swagger back for one last push for an upset in the semifinals. 

Six consecutive makes from the free throw line for UH brought Hawai’i within four, 66-62, with 1:17 left in regulation before Pepper lost the ball off his leg to give the ‘Bows a chance to cut it to a one-possession game with more than a minute left. 

Ty Johnson came up with a clutch strip on McKoy’s drive on the next possession, keeping the two-possession lead for UC Davis while the Aggies drained every second off of the clock possible. After Hawai’i forced a shot clock violation, McClanahan powered through contact for an and-one at the rim that brought UH within one, 66-65, with 27 seconds to play. 

Without any timeouts, the Rainbow Warriors came up with a steal at midcourt as Noel Coleman jumped a passing lane to provide the go-ahead chance to Hawai’i but McClanhan’s stepback jumper from the left elbow bounced off back rim and Justin McKoy was called for a loose-ball foul as the ‘Bows fell in the semifinals, 68-65. 

UC Davis All-Big West 1st team selection and conference Player of the Year Elijah Pepper willed the Aggies to victory down the stretch, pouring in a game-high 25 points on 10-of-23 shooting with 17 points coming in the final 20 minutes. Kane Milling followed behind with 14 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes of action while Ty Johnson added 12 points and five dimes in the victory for UC Davis. 

Hawai’i was led by Bernardo de Silva’s 14 points in 34 minutes, making 5-of-6 FG attempts and going 4-for-6 at the charity stripe in the loss. Juan Munoz and Justin McKoy were the other two Rainbow Warriors in double figures, finishing with 11 and 10 points respectively. 

JoVon McClanahan added nine points off the bench for Hawai’i, going 7-for-7 at the free throw line and nearly adding one final buzzer-beating memory to his UH ledger as his jumper went awry for the ‘Bows at the end.  

Freshman Akira Jacobs matched a season-high with eight points and a pair of 3-pointers while Tom Beattie provided physical defense across 31 minutes and chipped in a bucket in the ‘Bows loss. 

Hawai’i now discusses postseason options for a large graduating class of six seniors, considering joining the College Basketball Invitational tournament, a single-elimination tournament featuring 16 teams that were not selected to the NCAA Tournament or NIT. Teams participating in the CBI pay a $27,500 entry fee for playing in the tournament. 

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

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

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.” 

Hawai’i takes rubber match over CSUN, moves into Big West semifinals

Hawai’i takes rubber match over CSUN, moves into Big West semifinals

Hawai’i guard Noel Coleman attacks the rim during a home win over UC Bakersfield. The senior was one of four ‘Bows that scored in double figures in the Rainbow Warriors’ Big West Tournament quarterfinal win over CSUN on March 14. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

Hawai’i takes rubber match over CSUN, moves into Big West semifinals

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED MAR 14, 2024

On to the next one. 

For the second time in three seasons, third-seeded Hawai’i (20-13, 11-9 Big West) advanced into the Big West Tournament semifinals after taking down tenacious seventh-seed CSUN on Thursday night in the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nev., 75-68, for the ‘Bows fourth straight win. 

The Matadors (19-15, 9-11 Big West), who entered the day coming off a late-night overtime victory over Ajay Mitchell and UC Santa Barbara for the program’s first win in the conference tournament in a decade, looked like the team that received the 1st-round bye into the tournament as they scored four of the first five baskets of the game to jump out to an 8-2 lead just five minutes into action. Hawai’i’s offense struggled out the gates, needing to shake off some rust while shooting just 1-for-8 from the floor and committing a pair of turnovers. 

Bernardo de Silva split a pair of free throws before Noel Coleman finally ended the FG drought for the ‘Bows, drilling a 3-pointer from the right side to double UH’s scoring output from the first six minutes with one flick of his left wrist. 

Coleman’s bucket helped see the offense find friction for Hawai’i as Tom Beattie pushed down the floor quickly after for a right-handed layup before Justin McKoy got on the board for the first time in the Big West Tournament twenty seconds later to pull UH within a possession, trailing CSUN 12-10. 

“Early on in the year when we were struggling, teams went on runs and we didn’t respond and stop the bleeding early enough … [At this point of the season] we know to cut the bleeding, go on our own run and respond and I thought we’ve been doing a great job of that as of late and I thought we did it today,” McKoy said, discussing the team’s bounce back from a rough shooting start. 

McKoy, who earned his first career All-Conference team selection earlier this week when he was named 2nd-team All-Big West, strung together five more points in a row for the ‘Bows with a trip to the line and his first triple of the evening before sophomore forward Harry Rouhliadeff made it a new ball game with 8:38 left in the opening half, tying it at 20 with five points. 

Senior guard JoVon McClanahan delivered the ‘Bows first lead since the second possession of the game with his first basket of the night, dancing his way to the cup with 6:20 remaining before halftime. The two sides traded the lead back and forth over the next few minutes before Rouhliadeff hit a pair of free throws and Coleman sunk a close-range bucket to give Hawai’i multi-possession lead for the first time all evening. 

Trouble hit when Rouhliadeff left the game at the 2:23 mark after taking a nasty fall and appearing to hit his head on the ground. The sophomore had chipped in seven points and five rebounds while collecting an emphatic block on defense off the bench before being helped off the floor following the fall. He did not return to the game. 

“I thought that was kind of a microcosm of the year,” Hawai’i head coach Eran Ganot said after the game. “We dealt with adversity all year, we dealt with adversity in the game. Harry had a great first half and went out and he stepped up, [then] we had to step up for him.” 

Freshman forward Akira Jacobs checked in to replace Rouhliadeff for the final two minutes of the half, drilling one from long-distance to push Hawai’i into the locker rooms leading by six, 36-30. 

While the ‘Bows got plenty of help from the youth over the opening 20 minutes, it was the program’s seniors that stepped up to help Hawai’i maintain control throughout the 2nd half. 

Coleman, de Silva and McKoy scored Hawai’i’s first 17 points out of the break, helping the ‘Bows push the lead into double digits before the Matadors were able to string together an 8-0 run to make UH’s lead just 53-51 with under 12 minutes left in regulation. 

Akira Jacobs ended the Hawai’i scoring drought with an easy finish inside off a nice feed from Ryan Rapp to put UH back up four before de Silva sandwiched a Coleman 3-pointer with a couple of layups and Beattie scampered out for a fast-break layup to give the ‘Bows an 8-point lead once again with 5:25 remaining. 

CSUN junior Keonte George would not let the Matadors fade easily, dashing down the floor for back-to-back transition buckets to pull CSUN within a possession a minute and a half after the Rainbow Warriors’ run. Dionte Bostick put one last scare in Hawai’i fans by bringing CSUN within two, 68-66, with 2:35 left but that was the closest that the seventh-seeded Matadors would get the rest of the night. 

Hawai’i iced the game from the line as Coleman, McKoy and de Silva all made foul shots down the stretch to deliver the Rainbow Warriors to victory, 75-68. 

All-Big West 1st-Team selection De’Sean Allen-Eikens led all scorers on the night, pouring in 22 points and nine rebounds, going 9-of-19 from the field in 39 minutes for CSUN. Guard Dionte Bostick added 18 points but went 0-for-4 from 3-point range as the Matadors struggled from distance all night, going 3-of-17 from behind the arc in the loss. 

Hawai’i’s Justin McKoy shook off a poor shooting night to lead the ‘Bows in scoring, dropping 16 points while drilling three triples as four different Rainbow Warriors finished the game in double-figures for points. Bernardo de Silva, who was an All-Big West honorable mention this year, followed closely behind with 14 points and nine boards in the win for the ‘Bows. The 5th-year senior also passed the career 1,000-point threshold in the 2nd half, becoming the second Rainbow Warrior to achieve the feat this year (Coleman). 

“Bernardo has been great all year … [playing with] four fouls and he was able to stay in the game and just defend and I think that defense was huge for us, especially in the paint,” McKoy said of his Brazilian forward’s savvy play down the stretch. 

Noel Coleman and Juan Munoz finished with 12 points and 11 points respectively, hitting a combined five 3-pointers to out-shoot CSUN from long range by themselves. 

Hawai’i advances to Friday’s Big West Tournament semifinals and a date with #2 UC Davis, another program that the ‘Bows split the regular season series with. The Aggies pose a tough challenge, boasting Big West Player of the Year Elijah Pepper alongside a talented supporting cast. UH head coach Eran Ganot was unable to give an update on the status of forward Harry Rouhliadeff’s availability for Friday following the game. 

“We were smart about [his injury] and we’ll get more information. I don’t have any information now, but we’ll get it and provide it and kind of go from there,” Ganot shared. “It was good to be able to get it done without him and step up for him while we figure out his situation.” 

Hawai’i dominated UC Davis back on February 10, 87-70, part of the stark late-season turnaround by the ‘Bows that saw UH go 9-3 over the final 12 games of the regular season. One of those three losses did come when Hawai’i visited UC Davis two and a half weeks later and fell, 75-63. 

“I just think those [earlier] experiences – losing close games early, winning close games late, losing overtime games and then winning overtime games late,” Ganot said postgame. “Sometimes you got to go through it and sometimes you have got to grow from pain, but this group stayed together through all of that.”