UH-Hilo’s men’s basketball team returns home for the first time since the comeback that almost was against Point Loma.
There are many places the Vulcans can go – up, down, flat line – but this feels like the homestand they have to have.
First up is Azusa Pacific at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
“Other than Point Loma, they’re the hottest team in the (Pacific West Conference) right now,” coach GE Coleman said. “They’re extremely disciplined, they shoot as well as anybody in the PacWest, or the West Region, for that matter.
“They do a great job of balance and getting the ball inside and screening and opening it up with their perimeter shooting.”
There is some room for error for the Vuls (8-8, 6-6 PacWest), who gear up for their longest stretch of the season at home, four games, not only looking to protect their court but also their hold on to the sixth and final spot in the conference tournament.
The good news: Biola, which is also 6-6 and comes calling Monday, isn’t eligible for postseason play, so UHH is a full game ahead of 6-8 clubs Fresno Pacific and Academy of Art, which visits Feb. 8.
Azusa (11-4, 14-8) already has beaten Chaminade and Hawaii Pacific on this trip as part of a five-game winning streak, but this will be the Cougars’ first look at UHH’s pressure defense, which has vaulted the Vuls to eighth in the nation in turnovers (19.9), a number that also ranks second in the West Region and tops in the conference.
UHH almost used its press to turn the tide against Point Loma, but Coleman said, “I don’t think we’re” at the point where we can just rely on it against anyone.
“I think we’re still trying to get better defensively. Teams have gotten used to it and have had a few adjustments against the pressure,” he said. “We’re going to have to continue to get better everyday.”
On the injury front, UHH received some expected bad news: senior forward Devin Johnson, the team’s best returning player from last season, is lost for the season with a multiple knee injuries.
Johnson’s career, as it turned out, ended with a dunk and a 19-point effort against Dec. 31 at Dominican.
“You feel awful for the kid,” Coleman said. “You hate to see anybody go out like that, but especially a great kid like Devin.”
UHH’s other post player, Denhym Brooke, is working through a leg injury and is averaging 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds and is second in the PacWest in blocked shots.
“We would like to get more inside and it doesn’t necessarily have t0 come from a true back-to-the-basket post player,” Coleman said. “I think you have to generate points in the paint somehow.”
While he acknowledged its crucial the Vuls get better in half-court sets, UHH is also better off when it can the turn the tempo up a notch and can rely on its versatility while going full-court.
James Griffin leads the team at 17.4 points a game – fourth-best in the conference – Larry Bush is next at 13.8 and Kupaa Harrison and Jordan Graves are at 9.8 and 9.1, respectively, and Bush, Harrison and Graves are each in the PacWest’s top five in steals.
Guard Mandrell Worthy leads Azusa with 16.7 points a game and Will Ferris is a 3-point threat.
After a home loss against Concordia on Jan. 15, Coleman said his team needed to get tougher.
“They’re bringing it,” the coach said Thursday. “It wasn’t so much physical toughness, it’s more mental toughness.
“They’re tough kids. It’s the little things. Doing the fundamental things right all of the time.”
The women’s game starts things off at 5 p.m.
UHH (5-11, 2-10) broke an eight-game losing streak last Saturday at Notre Dame de Namur behind Sara Shimizu’s five 3-pointers and will look to even its home record.
This might not be the best time to face the 25th-ranked Cougars (17-4, 14-1). Azusa had its 14-game winning streak snapped Wednesday at Hawaii Pacific in an 81-72 loss.