It was raucous for a bit, but when the air finally went out of Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium last Saturday night, UH-Hilo men’s basketball coach GE Coleman turned opposite the court near the scorer’s table, as if to do a half stretch.
The Vulcans’ comeback for the ages had been thwarted, but the look on Coleman face appeared to portray more simple self-assurance than raw defeat.
• Moral victories won’t get the Vuls into the Pacific West Conference tournament;
• and UHH is what its record says it is: a .500 team.
But forgive Coleman for thinking, on heels of a two-game losing streak at home, that his team is headed in the right direction as it heads back out on the road.
“We’ve shown the past two games, playing the top two teams in a our conference (Concordia and Point Loma), that if we continue to improve and cut down on some of those mistakes, we’ll be in good shape come (PacWest) tournament time.
“Competitive, but now we have to got to get over the hump against the better teams in our league.”
The Vulcans (7-7, 5-5 PacWest) play Holy Names (7-11, 6-7) on Thursday and cellar-dweller Notre Dame de Namur (0-17, 0-11) on Saturday on a brief Northern California swing before heading home for their longest homestand of the season.
The Hawks shouldn’t be a hard team for the Vuls to get motivated to play, not after Holy Names stormed back from a 18-point deficit to beat UHH 85-77 at Hilo Civic in December.
James Griffin missed that loss entirely with a injury, while Denhym Brooke was limited.
“Hopefully, they can give us 40 minutes and we can try to get two road wins,” Coleman said.
Brooke, a 6-foot-8 post, is pivotal to the lineup since Devin Johnson, 6-7, is still sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury, but Brooke played only four minutes against Point Loma.
Griffin, meanwhile, continued to prove himself in the 94-85 loss Saturday night.
If it was a prize fight, the game might have been stopped when the PacWest front-running Sea Lions hit 10 or their first 11 shots, or when Josh Rodriguez swooped in for a layup to give Point Loma a commanding 46-27 lead with 4:58 lead remaining in the first half, or definitely when Tanner Nelson’s 3-pointer pushed the lead to 62-31 fewer than three minutes into the second half.
However, UHH, spurred by its pressure defense and its focus on attacking the rim offensively, continued to heed Coleman’s halftime advice.
“Just chip away,” he said.
Cleo Clain hit a jumper and made a layup. Lead down to 26.
Kupaa Harrison converted a three-point play, was true on a jumper and followed with two free throws, and Bush made a 3-pointer. Lead down to 20.
“The second half, the last 10 minutes we completely outplayed them, but you can’t spot, arguably a top 10 team in the country, 31 points,” Coleman said. “I didn’t think our pressure was getting to them in the first half, but we ended up turning them over a bunch in the second half.”
Bush’s dunk ignited the crowd, which was vocal during the last 5 minutes as Griffin took over.
The senior hit four 3-pointers in the final three-plus minutes to spur a 21-7 run, the last one bringing the Vuls to within 88-85 with 18 seconds left as the crowd roared in approval.
Jalen Thompson fouled Nelson, who missed both free throws, but Sterling Somers grabbed the rebound, was fouled and hit both free throws to restore the lead to five.
“We come all the way back and it comes down to little things and we missed the box out on the free throw,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to figure out the next time how to slow them down offensively, get their field goal percentage down and keep battling.”
The rematch is in mid-February in San Diego.
UHH is sixth in the PacWest– six teams will qualify for the postseason tournament – a half-game behind Academy of Art and half-game ahead of Holy Names.