As UH-Hilo gathered at its bench to discuss a final play, assistant coach Aukai Wong announced what Kupaa Harrison was already thinking: “It’s Kobe time.”
Every move Harrison made during the final sequence was pure Mamba-esque. From the swift step back to the strong lift and confident stroke, right on through to the game-winning swish and celebratory strut.
The Vulcans held a moment of silence for former NBA star Bryant before Monday night’s game, but it was Harrison, who doesn’t wear No. 24 by accident, who provided the most fitting tribute. The senior forward’s 3-pointer with 2 seconds left lifted the Vuls to a 79-76 overtime victory against Holy Names at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
“Everyone in the 2000s age group, he’s everybody’s’s idle,” Harrison said. “Somebody that I looked up to and wanted to be. Played for the Lakers, my favorite team.”
UHH coach GE Coleman said some of his players were in tears Sunday after hearing the news that Bryant — the “Black Mamba” — was among nine people to die in a helicopter crash in Southern California.
“Super sad, but the way he acted, he wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad or look for an excuse,” Harrison said. “He’d want you to come out and play and that’s what we tried to do today.
“That’s what Kobe was all about. He never made an excuse, no BS or anything. Find a way.”
The Vulcans (9-8, 7-6 Pacific West Conference) did so after a clunker of a first half that Coleman called UHH’s worst of the season, by far.
“We couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean,” said Coleman, whose team trailed by as many as 16 in the second half. ”You can either fold, or find a way, and these kids found a way and I’m very proud of that. It might not have been pretty, but no one cares if its a ‘W’ in the win column.”
This “W,” one that leaves the Vulcans alone on the all-important sixth line in the PacWest playoff race, was brought to you in part by Kailua, Oahu, and specifically Kalaheo High.
Kaleb Gilmore, Harrison’s former high school teammate, hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 16 seconds left in the second half to complete the Vulcans’ comeback.
“I told him on that last one, I have a feeling your guy is going to fall asleep or come off you,” Harrison said, “so just get somewhere where I can see you.”
After Gilmore’s layup and Damani Whitlock’s 3-pointer were answered by the Hawks (5-13, 3-9), Jalen Thompson accepted a Harrison pass and made a basket a inside, and Harrison’s jumper with 77 seconds left put the Vuls in front 76-73 in OT. But after both teams came up empty on a possession, Cameron Fini was fouled on a 3-point attempt and calmly made all three free throws.
Approaching its final possession, UHH kept an option open to get the ball to Gilmore, but he was covered, and Harrison’s made his clutch shot, confidently showing off his No. 24 jersey as the Vuls’ bench, and the crowd of 726, erupted.
“I felt good when I shot it,” Harrison said. “You just have to try to embody what (Kobe) stood for.”
The Vulcans had six players score in double figures, led by Harrison (16 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) and Elisha Duplechan (16 points), who made a jumper to cut the Vuls’ deficit to 65-61 late in the second half and then followed that with two free throws. Gilmore came off the bench to score 15 in his eighth consecutive game in double-figures, Sasa Vuksanovic scored 11 points with nine rebounds before fouling out, Whitlock also had 11 and Thompson was in double figures for the fourth time this season with 10.
Zamaria Odom scored a season-high 23 points for physical Holy Names, which was successful in roughing up UHH in the first half, particularity Harrison and Vuksanovic, a tactic the Vuls weren’t able to adjust to until the second half.
And so it goes for UHH.
Academy of Art (5-14, 3-9) comes in next for a visit on Friday night, and though the Urban Knights are tied with Holy Names in second-to-last in the PacWest, Coleman said there are no off nights in the conference, even at home, where UHH is now 7-1 this season.
“There is not a game on our schedule, here at home, or anywhere, that we’re just going to blow teams out,” Coleman said. “We’re not that style of a team. We really have to execute a do things the right way.”
He credited Harrison for having the “Mamba mentality,” but then again, that’s nothing new.
“When does he not step up,” Coleman said. “It’s every game.
“You can’t say enough about him. If you’re going to be one of best, if not the best in this conference, you have to carry the load, and that’s what he’s been doing all year long.”
On this night, however, Harrison’s heroics took on a sentimental importance. He was the closer that would have made his idle proud.
As UHH celebrated, Wong pounded the scorer’s table and said, “We did it for Kobe.”