The UH-Hilo men’s basketball team’s strength is team chemistry because it’s easy to see that everyone is on the same page.
First-year coach Kaniela Aiona’s aloha style is in play when he reminds his players about malama, to take care of teammates on the right and left of you.
The Vulcans are good listeners and showed their second-best asset: ball-sharing. They had 24 assists, compared to just seven a day earlier.
Coming in third is the depth. The backups helped produce a 14-0 run in the first half when Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones and Sasa Vuksanovic, two of the top offensive threats, were on the bench with foul trouble.
All those things added up in an 82-77 win over Hawaii Pacific in a PacWest pod game Sunday at UHH Gym to complete a sweep of the Sharks.
The Sharks (0-2) shot better (50.8% to 45.7%), had more points in the paint (48-38), and bench points (33-17).
So how did the Vulcans (2-0) win?
Persistence. When they got punched, they doubled down and punched back.
Elijah Martinez hit a jump shot in the paint for a 26-19 HPU lead with 9:13 left in the first half. Then the Vuls went on a surgical 14-0 run and never lost the lead. They answered every time the Sharks got close.
Tait-Jones scored 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds for a double-double, Jordan Graves added 13 points and dished eight assists, Vuksanovic had 12 points in just 20 minutes, while Jalen Thompson and Steven Hubbell had 11 points each.
Rodney Hounshell got into the paint and scored 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting, Lachland Viney added 13 points, and Tavon Tarpley had 12 points. The latter two came off the bench. David Rowlands, who scored 20 points a day earlier, was held to 11 points.
“We did a nice job. We had consistent energy and made improvements in some areas,” Aiona said. “One was decision-making. That’s a big deal for us.”
The Vuls didn’t take what coaches often refer to as ill-advised shots or contested shots. The ball-sharing led to open shots.
The value of Vuksanovic’s interior defense was on display in the second half, when HPU’s guard and wings sneaked into the paint for close-range shots.
Hounshell got in the paint and hit a jump shot to trim UHH’s lead to 77-75 with 1:39 left. Because Vuksanovic was saddled with four fouls, he couldn’t get overly aggressive and challenge shots.
Vuksanovic’s mobility was display early in the first half when HPU drove baseline, and the 6-foot-9 senior moved laterally (thanks to his footwork from soccer) and snuffed that play out.
“It was a heady play,” Aiona said. “Sasa is smart and has a good feel on defense.”
With their lead two points with 1:39 on the clock, The Vulcans needed to make a play. So they relied on their two strengths. The team chemistry meant no panic and the ball-sharing led to an open shot.
Darren Williams passed to Tait-Jones, who buried a triple for an 80-75 lead with 1:32 left.
The Sharks were in desperation mode and fouled Williams, who has a good stroke from the free-throw line. He converted 2 of 2 free throws with 14 seconds remaining to close out the 82-77 win.
After running his record to 2-0 at UHH, Aiona was proud of one other important thing: his team’s GPA.
“We had a good semester. We had a team GPA well over 3.0, closer to 3.5 as a team,” said Aiona, pleased with the success on both parts of his job.
The Vulcans next play Chaminade at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 and Sunday, Jan. 31 at McCabe Gym in Honolulu.