Rainbow Warriors edge Aggies, 61-56
|UH vs. New Mexico State photo gallery|
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dayton Morinaga
After building up frequent-flier miles all season in the Western Athletic Conference, the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team upgraded to second place last night.
The Rainbow Warriors moved into a tie for second after a 61-56 victory over New Mexico State.
A crowd of 4,960 at the Stan Sheriff Center watched Hawai'i improve to 17-9 overall and 10-5 in the WAC with its fourth consecutive victory.
New Mexico State dropped to 15-13 overall and 10-6 in the conference. The Aggies fell from second place to fifth.
"We had so much energy the last two days, I couldn't believe we just came off the road trip," Hawai'i head coach Riley Wallace said. "I said they're starting to smell the roses — they feel the end coming here."
With one WAC game remaining, the 'Bows are tied with Utah State and Louisiana Tech for second place. Hawai'i will host LaTech in the regular-season finale tomorrow at 5 p.m.
Last night, the 'Bows found a zone of defensive success and once again rode the all-around skills of Julian Sensley to victory.
Sensley finished with team highs of 22 points and nine rebounds. He scored 13 during the second half, when the 'Bows constantly had to fend off the relentless Aggies.
"Julian hit the shots and was really slashing without the ball, and was getting some inside-outside stuff," Wallace said.
Matt Lojeski added 11 points and nine rebounds, and Deonte Tatum contributed 11 points.
In keeping with its recent trend, Hawai'i rallied from a double-digit deficit.
The 'Bows trailed by 12 in the first half, but came back with an aggressive zone defense and a makeshift lineup.
When starting forward Matthew Gipson and starting center Ahmet Gueye got into foul trouble in the first half, the 'Bows switched from their traditional man-to-man defense to a zone.
"We went into that zone because they were beating us off the dribble, and they got our big guys in foul trouble," Sensley said. "We went to that zone and they struggled with it a little bit."
Chris Botez replaced Gueye as the center, and freshman guard Dominic Waters came in for Gipson to give Hawai'i a shorter lineup.
The 'Bows then went on a 19-4 surge late in the first half to turn a 23-11 deficit into a 30-27 lead. Hawai'i eventually took a 32-29 lead at intermission.
New Mexico State head coach Reggie Theus said he expected Hawai'i to play some zone defense last night.
"I thought they had to do something to get the tempo in their favor and to slow us down offensively," he said.
The victory avenged an 87-84 Hawai'i loss at New Mexico State on Jan. 14. Prior to last night's game, Wallace said the 'Bows did not want to get into another high-scoring game.
"At their place, we got kind of out of control," Lojeski said. "We played a little bit into their style too much. We were smarter this time about pushing it when we had it."
The 'Bows stayed with the zone throughout the second half, and Botez and Waters even started the second half.
"I stayed with them because we were in foul trouble," Wallace said. "I went as long as I could with it, and then went back to our big zone."
The move worked, as Botez scored on a hook shot and then Waters made a 3-pointer to give Hawai'i a 37-29 lead moments into the second half.
The 'Bows never lost the lead the rest of the way, although New Mexico State got as close as one several times in the closing minutes.
The 56 points was the lowest total by New Mexico State in a WAC game this season. The Aggies entered the game averaging 71.6 points per game.
"It's been our savior, I think, the whole year," Sensley said of the zone defense. "We're long, we're big and we're athletic. It spreads the floor for them and it's hard for them to get shots."
The proof came in the statistics of New Mexico State forward Tyrone Nelson.
He scored nine points early in the game when the Aggies jumped to their 12-point lead. At halftime, the 6-foot-9 Nelson had 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
He scored just five in the second half, and finished with a team-high 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting. He also led the Aggies with eight rebounds.
"It seemed like we always had a guy or two on him at all times in the zone," Lojeski said. "It definitely limited him."
But Theus said the Aggies did not get the ball inside enough in the second half.
"We did a bad job of getting Tyrone Nelson the ball," Theus said. "He's 7 for 10 on the night and he should have had 20 shots."
With Gueye and Gipson in foul trouble, Botez played a key reserve role for Hawai'i, finishing with six points, six rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Hawai'i out-rebounded the Aggies 35-23.
Seniors Botez, Gipson, Sensley and Tatum will be honored after tomorrow's game. Fans are being encouraged to wear white shirts for a Senior Night White-Out.
Reach Dayton Morinaga at email@example.com.