Everybody do the hula! The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors are dancing for the first time since 2002.
The last two days of college basketball competition have been wild. It's been crazy finish after crazy finish. You go in to each game thinking it can't possibly live up to the one that just finished with some crazy buzzer-beater or quadruple-overtime, but it does. The WAC championship finished with a buzzer-beater three while Hawaii and Long Beach State were midway through the second half on Saturday night. But the Big West championship game did not disappoint.
Going in to big games such as these, you always get excited for the stars. The old cliche is that big time players make big time plays in big time games. These two teams were responsible for half of the league's All First-Team. Stefan Jankovic and Roderick Bobbitt for Hawaii and Nick Faust for Long Beach State. None of them played more than 24 minutes.
Unfortunate as it is, one of the biggest storylines of the weekend in Anaheim was all the fouls, at least in the first half of games. Jankovic, Bobbitt, and Faust all picked up two fouls early on Saturday and were forced to sit for long stretches. Well, Faust was given two fouls in the first few minutes and then the officials rescinded one later, but that didn't stop him from missing five minutes of floor time before the Beach bench was made aware.
Jankovic and Bobbitt both only played six minutes of the first 20 available, but the Bows still held a six-point lead at the break. How'd that happen? For the second straight night, the 49er offense couldn't seem to generate much offense in the half court early on. At one point The Beach missed 11 straight field goal attempts.
Faust and Justin Bibbins hit a few jumpers and the two were responsible for 64% of the 49er scoring in the first half. Aaron Valdes did the damage for the Bows, scoring 10 of his 14 in the first half. Niko Filipovich and his 1.1 ppg average chipped in a crucial four, including a momentum swinging lay-up with time expiring after Faust inexplicably rushed a missed runner instead of settling for the last shot before halftime.
The second half started with more of the same. Bobbitt and Faust both picked up their third foul before five minutes had gone by and Faust added his fourth just a few minutes later. It looked like it might be time for the Bows to pull away much like they did in the first two rounds, but The Beach stormed back with a 15-5 run to get within two with 8:42 remaining.
Five minutes later, the game would be tied on a Faust three in the face of the 6'11" Jankovic. The momentum had officially fully swung in Long Beach's favor. It lasted all of 27 seconds. Faust would be called for a silly foul defending Jankovic out on the perimeter, his fifth and final.
It was actually the seventh foul he had been called for, but the officials had rescinded two of them. Faust is prevalent in this article, and for good reason. He's the most gifted player in the league. He looks like a first-round talent at times. But he also plays so loosely and with such reckless abandon. It's a blessing and a curse, depending on the moment and the decision. Unfortunately for Faust and the 49ers, his eagerness to make plays on the defensive end was costly. In his relatively brief 24 minutes of playing time, he compiled 17 points, eight rebounds, two steals, and a block. But with 3:27 to go in the game, his services were no longer available.
That's when the conference's player of the year - Jankovic - showed up. The big man had been limited with fouls for much of the game and wasn't his usual impactful self when he was on the floor. But with the game locked up at 58, the junior stroked a three-pointer with a hand in his face.
Hawaii wouldn't relinquish the lead from that point. Long Beach would get within one on a Travis Hammonds - who scored all 12 of his points in the second half - putback, but foul trouble reared its ugly head again for the 49ers and Hammonds would foul out 23 seconds later.
The Beach would get two chances to erase a two-point hole in the final minute, but without their two hottest hands they couldn't get it done. Bobbitt's two free throws with a couple of seconds remaining would erase any possible Jalen Adams-type heave for overtime.
It caps off a roller coaster ride year and a half for Hawaii. Two Octobers ago, former head coach Gib Arnold was fired weeks before the first game of the season. Eran Ganot was hired this past offseason. The program was put on probation this past December, cutting scholarships and making them ineligible for postseason play next season. A key contributor left the team two weeks ago. But in the end, Ganot steered the ship through the proverbial stormy seas and took the program to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years. They're not done yet.