Basketball: Harrison’s heady play is steadying influence for UHH

  • COURTNEY METZGER/UH-Manoa UH-Hilo wasn’t Kupaa Harrison’s first college stop, but the Oahu native is proving to be a keeper as a do-it-all Vul.

Kupaa Harrison took the long and circuitous route just to island hop.

When somebody takes three-plus years to travel the roughly 200-mile distance between Kailua, Oahu, and UH-Hilo, one could almost call them, well, measured.

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Or unhurried.

Maybe leisurely?

Actually, Harrison’s teammates have another word in mind.

“They call me really slow,” he said. “They say I’m a lot slower. I feel like I’m going pretty fast when I play.”

Plenty quick enough, in fact, to spur the suddenly surging Vulcans (6-5, 4-3 Pacific West Conference), who take a three-game winning streak into their 3 p.m. contest Saturday against struggling Hawaii Pacific (4-8, 1-6) at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

Harrison is an every man in the sense that he does everything on the basketball court. The 6-foot-5 junior forward is UHH’s second leading rebounder at 5.3 a game, second in assists (30), third in steals (18) and he’s fifth in scoring (8.8).

“It’s effective,” Harrison said of his athleticism. “It works for me.”

It certainly does the trick for coach GE Coleman, who marvels at Harrison’s basketball IQ and court awareness.

Fast, slow or middling, it’s easy to label Harrison as a smart player.

“I think just his demeanor, it’s such a calming presence for our program,” said Coleman, who is in his sixth season. “In my times here at Hilo, he probably has the highest basketball IQ of anybody I’ve ever coached.”

Long before Harrison helped Kalaheo win state Division I basketball titles in 2013 and 2015, he was mentored by his father, Tim Harrison, who formerly coached at Kailua.

“You can tell he’s a coach’s kid,” Coleman said. “He’s fundamentally sound. He makes up for anything he doesn’t have athletically based on fundamentals.

“If there was little kid watching somebody on footwork, catching the ball, seeing the floor, shooting technique, you’d want a young kid to watch Kupaa.”

The Vulcans and Sharks are – one pleasantly, the other tragically – much different teams than when they met Nov. 29 in Honolulu.

The Vuls made only five first-half shots in a 74-60 loss that marks the only conference win for HPU, which has lost seven of its eight games since and is still mourning the death of Emil Isovic. The sophomore collapsed during a game Dec. 18 and died the day after Christmas at the age of 21.

“A team that is talented but is obviously struggling,” Coleman said, “and I don’t know anybody that wouldn’t be struggling in a situation like that.”

The Vulcans, meanwhile, have had a week off to heal up and build off of a 3-0 road swing through Northern California that doubled as weeklong renaissance festival to start the new year. Those road three victories tied for the most the program has collected in a season dating back to 2009.

Sometime during the second half of an eventual 75-54 victory at Dominican on New Year’s Eve, Harrison said the Vuls found their identity, the right pressure point on defense, and they used it to force 38 turnovers.

“Devin (Johnson) got hurt, we only had seven guys and me and Denhym we’re in foul trouble, so the only five guys that could play were playing,” Harrison said. “We ended up going on a big run and that was a big turning point for us.

“We kind of established ourselves as a true pressure team. Attacking. We’re not taking our foot off the pedal.”

With junior guard Jordan Graves stalking the ball, the Vulcans rank sixth in NCAA Division II in turnovers forced at 19.9 a game, and UHH’s plus-4.55 turnover margin is second-best in the PacWest. Hawaii Pacific is last of 12 teams at minus-3.33.

Saturday, and for the rest of the season, pressure defense is the team’s calling card, Coleman said, “and for the first time we’re carrying (it) constantly.”

Johnson, a 6-7 post, hasn’t played since that victory and is sidelined indefinitely, and the team has long been without the services of freshman guard Damani Whitlock. Leading scorer James Griffin has played two games after missing almost a month with an ankle injury, and Coleman said the 6-5 guard is still easing his way back.

The 6-8 Brooke’s presence inside is all the more crucial going forward with Johnson out, and he battled through an ankle injury on the trip, twice scoring in double figures. In the Vuls last game, an 83-72 win at Academy of Art, six players scored in double figures.

“It takes a group effort,” Coleman said.

Harrison certainly has carved out his multifaceted role. First a sixth man, he’s now firmly entrenched as a starter.

He learned his rebounding chops under coach Alika Smith at Kalaheo, grabbing 16 boards in the 2015 state championship win against Iolani. (Vuls teammate Kaleb Gilmore scored 30 for the Mustangs).

“We never wanted to lose a game on the glass,” Harrison said. “If you didn’t box out on your man or get a rebound, you were out of the game.”

After gaining little interest from Hawaii’s NCAA Division II schools, he took the D-III route, playing one season in Oregon at Lewis & Clark College, where he “wasn’t super comfortable.”

The opposite was true of his time at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. He redshirted a season, rededicated himself to the game, than thrived last season under coach Steve Spencer, who also a favors pressuring defensive style.

“The best experience I’ve had,” he said.

Vuls assistant Aukai Wong first contacted him about coming to Hilo. The David and Goliath mentality here reminds him of his prep days at Kalaheo, a smaller school that was able to take down the big boys.

“Being small, but still being able to fight,” he said.

It took him a while, but Harrison got here.

Slow?

Who’s to say.

But definitely steady – and that wins the race.

“This next three-game homestand, we need to carry over the same energy and mental focus we had on the trip,” he said. “I think we can be consistent and take that step to being a really good team versus just doing it sometimes.”

Women

The UH-Hilo women are in a different predicament and face a tougher task with bigger injury issues.

Losers of four in a row, the Vulcans (4-7, 1-6) take on Hawaii Pacific team at 1 p.m. Saturday that they’ve beaten only three times in 30 tries.

HPU (8-5, 6-1) is third place in the PacWest and is led by senior guard Samantha Lambrigtsen’s 15.8 points a game.

The short-handed Vuls almost assuredly will need another big game from sophomore post Allie Navarette, who has scored in double figures in every game except one this season.

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Freshman guard Mandi Kawaha, a Hilo High alum, is also averaging double figures (10.7 points), but the Vulcans continue to be without two potential impact starters (Kim Schmelz and Mikayla Tablit).

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