Triumphant return: Vulcans, Vuksanovic begin new era by sinking Sharks

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald From left, UH-Hilo's Tom Power, Payton Grant, Steven Hubbell and Greg Walter celebrate a 3-pointer Saturday against Hawaii Pacific.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald UH-Hilo forward Tom Power jumps to save the ball from going out of bounds Saturday.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald UH-Hilo guard Jordan Graves attempts a shot Saturday against Hawaii Pacific in the first Vulcans’ basketball games since the pandemic began. UH-Hilo athletic director Pat Guillen had plenty of elbow room in the stands. COVID-19 restrictions will bar spectators from coming to games for the foreseeable future

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald UH-Hilo forward Sasa Vuksanovic attempts to push past Hawaii Pacific forward Colton Martin Saturday during the Vulcans' 79-71 victory.

That was a little too close for comfort for the UH-Hilo men’s basketball team, which saw an 18-point lead whittled down to single digits.

Sasa Vuksanovic showed the toughness that first-year coach Kaniela Aiona asked for in UHH’s 79-71 win over Hawaii Pacific on Saturday.

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The 6-foot-9 senior scored 19 points on 8 of 15 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds. Even better, he had no personal fouls and made 2 of 3 from the free-throw line, once his biggest Achilles heel.

He outperformed 6-11 HPU center Chidozie Ndu, who would probably win an arm-wrestling contest against Vuksanovic. Ndu had just six points, five rebounds and got tagged with three fouls.

The Vulcans (1-0) and Sharks (0-1) have been evenly matched with an 11-11 all-time record.

The two teams play again at 3 p.m. Sunday at UHH Gym to close the two-game set and then face each other four more times.

The Sharks are in a unique position because of the success of the women’s program, but coach Darren Vorderbruegge enters his 13th season with a 161-170 record, including a PacWest title and NCAA tournament win in the 2016-17 season.

Despite being consistently overlooked, the Sharks have had one great season, surrounded by good ones. They’ve had three consecutive losing records once and have had two straight losing years twice.

The Vulcans have had nine straight losing seasons, which led to the hire of Aiona, who turned around Menlo College in three years.

This first PacWest pod game in the new coronavirus era was a statement game, perhaps to see the direction each takes.

“The challenges have been many during the pandemic, but one of the things I am most proud is how the guys have brought the passion to every practice,” Aiona said in a school release. “I was pinching myself that we were actually finally playing.”

In the second half, UHH took a 74-54 lead with 5:45 left on a putback by Vuksanovic, who had just three turnovers in 32 minutes.

The Sharks chopped UHH’s lead to 74-67 when David Rowlands drilled a 3-pointer with 2:08 remaining. That capped an HPU 7-0 run, which saw a momentum shift.

The Vulcans worked the ball inside to Vuksanovic who backed the defense down and hit a left-handed bank shot to swing momentum back.

Jacob Foy nailed a 3-pointer to cut UHH’s lead to 76-71 with 33 seconds to go. But Jordan Graves hit 1 of 2 free throws, and Darren Williams made 2 of 2 to close out the Sharks.

Williams led the way in scoring with 23 points on 7 of 14 shooting, including 3 of 7 from long distance, and Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones added 21 points on 9 of 16 shooting and collected nine rebounds, just missing his second double-double of the season.

Ethan Jetter was impressive in 19 minutes and made a statement that he deserves more playing time. The freshman guard scored 11 points on 3 of 3 shooting from long distance, including a nice step-back triple, and made 2 of 2 from the free throw line for the Vulcans, who shot 41.8% from the field.

Rowlands scored 20 points and Jacob Foy 13 to lead the Sharks, who shot 42.9% from the field.

UHH’s work on the glass and transition game led to easy points. The Vulcans outscored HPU in points off turnovers (17-11) and fast-break points (16-3).

HPU tried a half-dozen times to trap the Vuls, but good luck with that against two solid ball-handlers in Williams and Graves. They surrendered no turnovers when doubled teamed.

The Vuls had a nice start and held a 43-34 halftime lead, helped by Tait-Jones’ 15 points and 11 each from Vuksanovic and Williams.

What was surprising and impressive was UHH’s work on the glass. The smaller Vulcans outrebounded HPU 20-11 in the first half.

Vuksanovic had nine rebounds and often got the better of Ndu. Vuksanovic scored early against him with a nifty up-and-under move. Somewhere Kevin McHale, the master of post moves, was nodding with acknowledgment of his signature move.

At one point, Tait-Jones scored seven straight points. He drained a 3-pointer, followed with a mid-range jump shot and scored a layup in transition to give UHH a 13-7 lead.

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The only problem in the first half was getting a handle on Rowlands, HPU’s slippery point guard, who kept racing to the rim on screens set by Ndu. Rowland had 12 points on 5 of 6 shooting in the first half.

With 11 seconds left until halftime, Williams let the clock wind down and zipped to the rim for a nine-point win.

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