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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2004

Garden party two wins away

 •  Nebraska, UH ready to go

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

Is there a Cinderella in the house?

Two weeks after its season seemed down to its last flicker, the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team is suddenly close to being in a position to try on the National Invitation Tournament's silver slipper again.

Two victories — one tonight against Nebraska at the Stan Sheriff Center and another on Wednesday at the winner of tonight's Michigan-Oklahoma game — and these Rainbow Warriors will have a ticket to New York and a date with history.

It has been 30 years since the 'Bows last appeared in Madison Square Garden where, distinctive aloha-print shorts and all, they were the darlings of the day until losing in the semifinals.

In those days the NIT was a smaller, more exclusive field. They started with the quarterfinals in New York, no opening or first-round games in other time zones, and took it from there.

UH beat Oklahoma in a 1971 quarterfinal before losing to St. Bonaventure in the semifinals. In 1974, the 'Bows beat Fairfield before being eliminated by Purdue in the semifinals.

Now, getting to New York is a cross-country test of attrition that for all but the favorites means fighting your way across the continent, sometimes retracing considerable hunks of geography.

Twice in the modern era UH has gotten to the NIT quarterfinals (1990 and '98) but hasn't quite been able to punch that return ticket to New York, where only the final four congregate.

But if the Rainbows can get past the Cornhuskers tonight, and somehow put the pieces together again on Wednesday, there is little doubt who would, in short order, become the Cinderella of this NIT postseason ball.

The Rainbows began auditioning for the part last week when they knocked off No. 25 Utah State, the tournament's only nationally ranked team and most sympathetic figure.

That win, all the bigger for the ease with which it was accomplished far from home, not only upset the Big Apple cart and brackets enough to help earn UH a home game, it opened some eyes. Now, two more tough wins and these 'Bows will be tugging at some hearts beyond the soldout 808 area code, too.

Of course, this is where the crunch comes. The rule of thumb in the NIT is that the team that wants to be there the most usually wins. As Utah State could testify.

Well, all the aggrieved parties and sulkers are gone now, leaving only teams that have demonstrated a passion for playing on.

All but ignored for the first four months of the basketball season, the Western Athletic Conference (motto: Hey, we play basketball way out here too, you know!) has already had one Cinderella step forth, Nevada in the NCAA Tournament, on the postseason stage.

Tonight we see if the Rainbows can take that next big step in the NIT.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.