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Hawaii, Long Beach State Set to Square Off in Big West Championship

Hawaii cruises for the second straight round, taking out UC Santa Barbara 88-76. Meanwhile, Long Beach State hung on again, outlasting UC Irvine 77-72.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Semifinals Recap

Game 1: #1 Hawaii 88, #4 UC Santa Barbara 76

When Hawaii is focused and fundamental, they're a really tough team to beat. The only reason this game stayed as close as it did was the Bows going on a stretch in each half where they got sloppy, turned the ball over, and allowed the Gauchos to get out in transition for some easy buckets. Otherwise, it was a trying effort for UCSB in the half court.

On the other end, the big three for Hawaii - Stefan Jankovic, Roderick Bobbitt, and Aaron Valdes - all had big games. The trio combined for 64 points and 23 rebounds on 55% shooting. Jankovic came out firing from deep, knocking down three of his four attempts from distance on his way to 15 first half points. Bobbitt took complete control of the game at the start of the second half by hitting open three-pointers, jumping passing lanes, and finishing on the fast break.

Michael Bryson and Gabe Vincent did their best to carry the offense for most of the game, but they couldn't find a third scorer until late in the game. That would be the unlikely contributions of little used reserve Alex Hart. Hart's career high scoring output coming into the game was nine points. He scored 13 in eight minutes on Friday. The last eight minutes of the game, I might add. He was a perfect 3 for 3 beyond the arc. Outside of Hart's personal late rally, the Gauchos were just 5-24 from the outside.

Game 2: #3 Long Beach State 77, #2 UC Irvine 72

As far as games with 60 combined free throws go, this one provided quite a bit of excitement. Maybe it helped that it involved the Black and Blue rivalry and the fact that it was the first game of the BWT where the winner was still hanging in the balance for the last minute of the game.

The first half was not an ideal watch if you're into a more free-flowing, rhythmic version of basketball. The story of the first 20 minutes was Long Beach shooting 24 free throws. They made 21 of them to provide the majority of their 39 points they amassed, which was enough for a nine-point advantage at the break. With free throws comes fouls and Irvine had 16 of them. They went into the half with six guys having at least two fouls and two of them tacked on a third.

It looked like The Beach might be in trouble going forward, though. Point guard Justin Bibbins went down with an ankle related injury and supposedly heard something pop. Not to mention, it looked like Nick Faust might be in line for another poor showing against the Eaters. He started just 1-7 from the floor - although that one field goal was glorious, check it out - but Luke Nelson and Mamadou Ndiaye similarly struggled for UCI, only scoring a combined four points in the first half.

Bibbins was able to give it a go in the second half, and good thing, because he might've been the most important player on the floor for the 49ers. Not only did he have 17 points, six rebounds, and five assists, but his probing of the Eaters' zone defense and constant harassment of Luke Nelson were big keys for his team's win.

Ndiaye did get going in the second half for Irvine, but he seemed really fatigued down the stretch and Nelson never did bust loose. A night after dropping 36 on Cal Poly, the junior guard finished with just five points. Jaron Martin tried to pick up his slack, knocking down five three-pointers on his way to 21 points - including a ridiculous bank shot to bring the Eaters within two with 18 seconds to go - but it wasn't enough in the end. Long Beach hit their free throws down the stretch and Faust hit a really big jumper late to finish off their rival.

Finals Preview

Hawaii vs. Long Beach State

Well, Long Beach swept the season series. The first game in Honolulu was kind of marred by Stefan Jankovic's foul trouble. He only played 22 minutes and he never really found his rhythm. Also, Aaron Valdes was just returning from an injury and he only attempted two shots in his limited 19 minutes. At the same rate, Mike Thomas popped off for 20 points that day, a career high for him.

The second game was senior day at Long Beach, which was just a week ago. The Bows erased a 13-point first-half deficit and were up by as many as 11 in the second half before watching that lead evaporate and losing on two Travis Hammonds free throws.

If today proved anything, Hawaii will need to worry about foul trouble for Jankovic again. The 49ers went right at the much bigger Irvine front court and it paid off. I would expect a big game from Nick Faust, as well. He's averaged a rather efficient 23.5 points per game in the first two meetings and Hawaii's loose, fast-paced style fits perfectly with the way he likes to play.

I'd expect a lot of free throws again in this one. Both teams love to live at the line. Either way, it should be a close game that comes down to the wire, much like it did a week ago. Whoever does a better job limiting turnovers and controlling the glass win. The Bows have won a little easier so far in Anaheim, but I'll stick with my original prediction that the Beach would walk away with the title.