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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Shimonovich’s back hurting

By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer

Haim Shimonovich was key to Hawai'i's run to the Rainbow Classic title.

Advertiser library photo

WAC men's basketball

Who: Fresno State vs. Hawai'i

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Where: Stan Sheriff Center

Admission: $14 lower level; $10 upper level (adult); $7 upper level (ages 4-18, UH students)

Parking: $3.

University of Hawai'i center Haim Shimonovich spent Christmas Day on his back, nursing a sore back yesterday.

The rest of his teammates on the UH men's basketball team spent the holiday practicing for its biggest game of the season — and wishing for the healthy return of their "Big Daddy."

The injury was diagnosed as "minor," but understandable, considering Shimonovich carried his teammates on his broad shoulders last week. He earned most valuable player honors after leading UH to the championship of the Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic.

"I'll play for sure," said Shimonovich, a 6-foot-10 sophomore. "My back was just sore, so I wanted to rest it. I want to make sure I'm ready for Fresno State."

In perhaps the most anticipated Western Athletic Conference game of the season, the Rainbow Warriors will play host to the Bulldogs tomorrow. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Stan Sheriff Center.

"It's a big game for us, for them, and for the conference," UH head coach Riley Wallace said. "This is what being part of a conference is all about."

The Bulldogs, who won the WAC regular-season title last season, are 8-4. Hawai'i, which won the WAC Tournament last season, is 9-2.

During the preseason, Fresno State was picked by nine out of 10 WAC coaches to win the conference. Hawai'i received the other first-place vote — from Fresno State head coach Jerry Tarkanian.

"We knew all about Hawai'i last year," Tarkanian said, referring to UH's two victories in three games against the Bulldogs last season. "They were an outstanding team then, and they're an outstanding team now."

The epic battle will take place on the opening night of the WAC season.

Two teams — Boise State and Louisiana Tech — were added to the conference this season, while Texas Christian departed. With 10 teams comprising the WAC, each team will play a home-and-home series with the others, making for an 18-game schedule.

Entering tomorrow's games, eight of the 10 WAC teams have .500 or better records.

"It's going to be a tougher conference than people think," Wallace said. "There are no gimmes. Everybody is good, especially at home."

Hawai'i finished 8-8 in WAC games last season, going 7-1 at home and 1-7 on the road.

"You wipe the slate clean and start all over from here," Wallace said. "It's a new season, and the WAC season is considered a season of its own."

Wallace would especially like to improve last year's home WAC record, and then "steal a few" on the road.

"You have to win every game at home," he said. "That's the most important thing."

The first step toward that goal begins with the team regarded as the WAC's best.

Fresno State is the only WAC team to be ranked in the national polls this season, although it has lost three of its last four games to drop out of the latest rankings.

All three losses came with star center Melvin Ely, last season's WAC Player of the Year, sitting out an NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits. Tomorrow's game is supposed to be the last of his six-game suspension, but Fresno State officials are appealing to get him eligible to play against UH.

Whether Ely plays, Shimonovich's performance will be vital to UH. He is the only true center on Hawai'i's roster, while Fresno State has four other players besides Ely in its regular rotation 6-8 and taller.

"We'll need all our guys at our best," Wallace said. "This is the kind of game you want to play no matter how bad you might be hurting."