Hawaii drops into play-in game, 70-59
|Photo gallery: Hawaii vs. New Mexico State basketball|
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dayton Morinaga
That resounding thud last night in the Stan Sheriff Center was the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team falling into the depths of a play-in game.
New Mexico State defeated the Rainbow Warriors, 70-59, in the regular-season finale before a crowd of 4,698.
A victory would have kept Hawai'i out of the dreaded play-in game for this week's Western Athletic Conference Tournament at Reno, Nev.
"We knew what was at stake," Hawai'i guard Kareem Nitoto said. "This was a must-win game and we didn't come out and play like it was a must-win game. We came out and played like we were crowned king before the game started."
Instead, the 'Bows were sent to the WAC's equivalent of a dungeon. Hawai'i finished the regular season 13-16 and on a four-game losing streak. It will be the No. 8 seed for the WAC Tournament at 5-11.
The 'Bows will meet No. 9 seed Fresno State in the play-in game on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. (Hawai'i time). The winner of that game will meet No. 1 seed Utah State in Thursday's quaterfinals.
No team from the play-in game has ever won the WAC Tournament. Only one play-in team — Boise State in 2005 — made it to the championship game.
"We had an opportunity to play our way out of the play-in game, and for some reason, that first half was probably the worst half of basketball we played all year," Hawai'i head coach Bob Nash said. "And I can't put my finger on it. I thought we had good preparations for this game."
The 'Bows had a full week to prepare for the Aggies, but still fell flat last night.
Hawai'i committed 21 turnovers and shot just 32.1 percent from the field against a New Mexico State zone defense that focused on Roderick Flemings.
"We did not attack the zone very well, and we didn't guard very well," Nash said. "When you do those things, you don't give yourself a chance to win ... we didn't deserve to win."
Nitoto led the 'Bows with 11 points, although he committed six of the 21 turnovers. Bill Amis added 10 points and 10 rebounds, but he committed five turnovers.
"They're a good team, a well-coached team," Amis said of the Aggies. "But this is all on us. They came out and doubled Rod hard every possession, and the rest of us need to step up."
Flemings finished with nine points on 2-of-6 shooting. It was just the second game this season that he did not reach double-figures in points.
New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies said he rotated several defenders against the 6-foot-7 Flemings.
"We had to guard him as a team tonight," Menzies said. "That wasn't any one man, so I thought it was good the way they held him in check."
Turnovers doomed the 'Bows from the start. The game was tied at 4, then Hawai'i committed five consecutive turnovers, which allowed the Aggies to take a 12-4 lead.
"We got a little rattled early in the game, made some uncharacteristic plays out there," Nash said.
The 'Bows responded with an 11-0 run to take a 15-12 lead, but the Aggies took advantage of more Hawai'i turnovers later in the half.
Hawai'i committed six turnovers in the final seven minutes of the half. NMSU outscored the 'Bows 14-3 during that time to take a 35-25 lead at intermission.
"It was definitely something that sparked us," Menzies said. "Our defense turned into our offense. Fourteen of the 35 points were off turnovers — that's a big chunk ... I think we had a phenomenal effort defensively, which was one of the reasons that we came out with the result we did."
The Aggies increased the lead to 45-31 early in the second half, and Hawai'i never got closer than nine after that.
NMSU played the entire first half without sophomore wing Jahmar Young, who leads the WAC in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He was benched for academic reasons, and scored six points in the second half.
"I think we came out with a lot of energy and we played as if the game meant something to us, which it did," Menzies said.
In truth, the Aggies were locked at the No. 5 seed regardless of last night's outcome. NMSU finished the regular season 16-14 overall and 9-7 in the WAC.
Troy Gillenwater led the Aggies with 18 points. Wendell McKines added 16 points and 11 rebounds.
The 'Bows are scheduled to depart for Reno today. They went 2-0 against Fresno State during the regular season.
"These guys have been resilient all year long and I don't expect any change," Nash said. "Fresno State is a team that we matched up well with on two occasions ... hopefully, we'll learn from that and three times will be a charm."
Reach Dayton Morinaga at firstname.lastname@example.org.