By Ferd Lewis
They slapped each other's backs in triumph, waved "WAC Championship" signs with joy and wore smiles as they cut down the nets.
Yet, for all who witnessed the University of Hawai'i players repeating these rituals of champions, there was an unmistakable difference between the degree of jubilation expended in celebrating last night's 73-59 Williams Western Athletic Conference Basketball Tournament title victory over Tulsa and the delirium that accompanied last year's version.
Indeed, just 24 hours short of a year to the day since they won the WAC Championship in the same arena over much the same Golden Hurricane before many of the same once-disbelieving partisans, a lot has changed for these Rainbow Warriors.
They came to Tulsa a year ago hoping to, maybe, somehow become the best in the conference. This week they arrived fully expecting to repeat as champions.
In winning back-to-back conference tournaments for the first time in school history, the Rainbows have done much more than automatically advance to this week's NCAA Tournament. They have raised high the level of the program and the way it is viewed.
One title can be dismissed as good fortune. And, folks in Tulsa and around the far-flung WAC saw it precisely that way last year. It was, to hear them tell it, simply UH's year in 2001, a team on a once-in-a-blue-moon roll at the right time.
But two in a row? This was lightning and how better to describe the force the Rainbows have become in the conference striking twice in the same place.
For anybody who watched the Rainbows beat the Golden Hurricane for a fourth consecutive time, third in the Reynolds Center, in 12 months while running their WAC Tournament winning streak to six games, there can be no doubting the better team won. And won ... and won.
Over two years of conference tournaments, it has been Texas Christian, Fresno State, Tulsa, San Jose State, Nevada and Tulsa again, all falling victim to these Rainbows. Many buried with the ease that UH runs the backdoor play.
In a conference where it had been a decade since any team had won successive tournaments away from its home floor, this was a two-star accomplishment played out before an ESPN2 audience. That it was done by a team that had to travel 3,836 miles to do it was really something worth noting.
For a school that had to labor 15 years for its first WAC basketball title of any kind regular season or tournament and then wait seven more years for a tournament repeat, these back-to-back crowns are a breakthrough.
The Rainbows have ascended heights hardly imagined in the aftermath of the debilitating 1977 NCAA probation. They have distanced the program from the days when just getting a National Invitation Tournament bid seemed a slice of hoop heaven.
Times have indeed changed for UH basketball.
So much so that when the public-address system blared "We Are The Champions" last night, it wasn't telling them anything new. It was merely playing what they have come to think of as their song.