UH hopes tide turns against Aggies
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
As fate would have it, four days after a remarkable transformation against Fresno State, Rainbow Wahine basketball hosts New Mexico State — the Western Athletic Conference's version of Bulldog Light. What better way for Hawai'i to realize what it learned in the quickly fading light of Saturday's 78-69 loss?
The Aggies, who play Hawai'i at Stan Sheriff Center at 7 tonight, bring the same frantic fire-it-up pace as Fresno State. The only difference is FSU has won the last two WAC championships and is unbeaten this season, while NMSU (15-8, 5-4 WAC) is four games back.
The Rainbows (9-13, 3-6) are even farther back, and fully aware of what a win tonight would do for them. They are one of four WAC teams with three wins. A victory against a team in the top half could help them break from the mediocre pack and secure a better WAC Tournament seeding. Another loss, heading into a three-game road trip, could shorten their season.
The relatively upbeat atmosphere that followed Hawai'i's 32-point improvement against Fresno State has been replaced by reality this week. First-year coach Dana Takahara-Dias still calls Saturday an "incredible effort" by her team, but the closer she looked at the turnaround from a 41-point blowout in the WAC opener to a game that was separated by six points with 2:30 remaining, the worse she felt.
"It was winnable," Takahara says simply, and sadly.
The inspiring defensive effort, and extremely efficient offense, were ultimately erased by frustration in the final minutes — and 16 first-half turnovers. Rainbow Wahine Shawna Kuehu and Mai Ayabe, who both suffered season-ending knee injuries earlier this season, watched in wonder as their teammates battled the Bulldogs before falling.
"It will help us a lot," insisted Ayabe. "We lost the last game by 40 but you could see we could really play against them now. We could have won the game."
"No loss is good," Kuehu added, "but it wasn't one where at the end of the game you put your head down because you didn't play your best. You can always do better, but I think this loss is more of a 'If we can run with the top team in the WAC, we can run with any team.' It should give them comfort."
Kuehu, a two-time Hawai'i State Player of the Year at Punahou, saw her season end Nov. 29 against East Tennessee State. It was early enough that she should earn a medical hardship and have four seasons left.
Ayabe is down to one. After graduating in 2005, she moved here from Fukuoka, Japan, to play Division I basketball, despite getting no response to her UH inquiries. Ayabe graduated from Kapi'olani Community College and worked at Hy's Steak House for a year before running into Takahara at summer league. The new coach encouraged her to walk on.
Ayabe earned a place as backup point guard and was averaging 13 minutes before her first injury in 15 years of playing basketball came at New Mexico State last month — days after Takahara had put her on scholarship.
"Everything has paid off, I'm on the right track," Ayabe still says. "I'm really happy, living out my dream."
The game in Las Cruces came three days after the Fresno fadeout and the 'Bows were still stunned, falling behind 42-20 at halftime against the Aggies and losing Ayabe in a road trip from hell. They have all rallied, with the relentless rehab of Kuehu and Ayabe going well and their 10 teammates hoping for a second-half surge.
"It's just a matter of our path, the journey we are making," Takahara said. "We are improving every facet we can think of. Saturday we were playing against a seasoned team that expects to win every time, hasn't lost in the WAC yet and is a two-time WAC champ. There is a difference there, but I'm confident we'll get there someday."
Tonight, Takahara says, would be a good time.
Jasmine Lowe and Crystal Boyd are both averaging 15 points for NMSU, and preseason all-WAC pick Madison Spence is not far behind. The Aggies, who have made twice as many 3s as Hawai'i, are ranked in the top 50 nationally from behind the arc and upset No. 21 Kansas last month. It was their third win, ever, over a ranked team.