Rainbows look for new identity on road
Hawaii heads out on its first conference road trip of the season on top of the WAC standings
It wasn't the smoothest ride ever, but the Hawaii basketball team emerged from a seven-game homestand atop the Western Athletic Conference and rejuvenated by Thursday's thrilling victory over Nevada.
Buoyed by wins over two of the league's top teams according to the preseason polls, the Rainbow Warriors (8-4, 2-0 WAC) head to the mainland next week for their first conference road trip of the season in first place in the WAC.
The Rainbows faced their share of adversity in going 5-2 in their longest homestand of the season as injuries limited the team's depth and losing twice on its home floor proved frustrating.
But weathering the trials may have helped the 'Bows forge a new personality entering the road trip.
"Now we have to get a new identity, which I think they're working at," UH coach Riley Wallace said.
"You've got guys playing now who wouldn't have played as many minutes. They're continuing to work, and the guys that are on the front line have been there all along."
UH opened the WAC season by beating Utah State in mid-December and will try to build on the momentum of Thursday's 73-69 overtime win over Nevada during next week's trip.
The Rainbows depart on their longest road trip of the WAC season Monday afternoon and face Louisiana Tech next Thursday. They then take on WAC newcomer New Mexico State a week from today.
"Everything seems short after that," Wallace said.
Both LaTech (8-6, 1-0) and NMSU (6-7, 1-0) opened their conference schedules with road wins on Thursday. The Bulldogs play at Idaho today, while NMSU travels to Boise State.
Hawaii got a head start to the WAC season and held serve at home with two league wins to bookend its homestand.
Utah State was picked second in both the media and coaches polls prior to the season, while Nevada, the defending regular-season champion, was a near unanimous favorite to win the conference title.
The only team other than the Wolf Pack to garner a first-place vote in either poll was Hawaii, which got Nevada coach Mark Fox's vote (coaches aren't allowed to vote for their own teams).
UH entered Thursday's game stinging from a loss to Penn a week earlier, and the Rainbows used the down time to recharge and prepare for the Wolf Pack.
"We had a good week of practice. We got through our plays a little better, execution was better, a little more crisp," UH guard Matt Lojeski said.
Said Wallace: "We went back to fundamentals in practice. We did a lot of shooting, we did a lot of free-throw shooting, we did a lot of the defensive work we had to do and spent a lot of time getting up and down the floor trying to work on our fast break and execution."
The Rainbows used a team effort to overcome a 37-point outing by Nevada forward Nick Fazekas.
Fazekas made 10 of his first 15 shots from the field, but was held to five points in the final 13 minutes of regulation and overtime.
"Coach talked about being physical with him," UH forward Julian Sensley said. "I was in his ear, I tried to get under his skin."
UH eventually pulled out the win in a game that included 11 ties and 14 lead changes. Neither team led by more than four points in the second half and UH was able to hang on in overtime.
"It should mean a lot because it was two teams that really went to battle," Wallace said.
"Both teams wanted it really bad, and we came out with the win."