RAINBOW WARRIOR BASKETBALL
'Bows leave town full of good vibrations
Hawaii knows the WAC will be won on the road after picking up momentum at home
It's no secret that the Western Athletic Conference basketball championship will likely be decided by the team that can best navigate the rigors of the road.
In the first 25 conference games of the season, visiting teams have won just seven times. Not coincidentally, the only two squads that have multiple roads wins so far -- Louisiana Tech and Utah State -- are the current leaders in the WAC race.
Hawaii made up ground on the top teams with two wins at the Stan Sheriff Center, and will try to continue its climb up the standings on its second, and perhaps most daunting, WAC road trip of the season.
The Rainbow Warriors (10-6, 4-2) leave tomorrow for Reno and play defending regular-season champion Nevada (13-5, 3-3) on Saturday. They'll then face second-place Utah State (13-4, 5-2) in a nationally televised contest on Monday.
Following home wins over Fresno State and Boise State, UH enters the trip one game behind first-place Louisiana Tech (12-7, 5-1) and a half-game behind Utah State, which scored a pivotal road win over Nevada on Monday.
"There's only been two WAC (regular-season) champions here (in UH's history) and I told these guys it's wide open," UH coach Riley Wallace said.
The Rainbows' struggles on the mainland have been well documented as they've lost 18 of their last 20 road games, and are 0-4 this season.
Their last trip resulted in three-point losses at Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State. But the 'Bows were able to shake off the frustration and rebound for two wins at home to close in on the leaders.
"For us, coming off those two losses on the road was tough, but it was amazing how we bounced back and how we've actually learned from those two losses and how we've improved," UH forward Julian Sensley said after UH's 72-61 win over Boise State on Monday.
Hawaii successfully defended its home court, improving to 4-0 in conference play at the Sheriff Center, with solid defensive performances. The Rainbows played a seldom-used zone to disrupt Fresno State and stuck with their conventional man-to-man scheme against Boise State.
UH held the Bulldogs and Broncos to a combined 34.6 percent shooting from the field (45-for-130) and allowed just 22 free-throw attempts in the two games. Hawaii opponents went to the free-throw line an average of 28 times per game in its three previous contests.
The Rainbows also did a better job of converting their attempts from the line, shooting 80.6 percent (25-for-31) during the homestand.
"Down the stretch, that's what loses games for us, free throws and big rebounds," Sensley said. "In practice we've been working on it, everybody's been coming in before and staying extra to work on what they need to work on."
Guard Matt Lojeski finished with 16 points and nine rebounds on Monday and worked hard on the defensive end, chasing Boise State guard Coby Karl, the Broncos' leading scorer, most of the night. Karl ended up with 12 points, but struggled to a 3-for-14 night from the field.
Lojeski drew a similar assignment against high-scoring Utah State guard Jaycee Carroll last month with similar results.
"Early in the season, there was a lot of separation, because he didn't think defense coming out of junior college," UH coach Riley Wallace said. "Now he's right with the guy, tracking hard and getting out in him. And our big guys are helping him, and he recovers better than he did."
In both games, forward Ahmet Gueye and center Chris Botez took turns defending the paint. The Rainbow big men helped cut off driving lanes against Fresno State, as the Bulldogs repeatedly passed the ball back to the perimeter for 3-point attempts, and caused problems inside for a smaller Boise State team.
Wallace also praised the versatility of senior Deonte Tatum, who played three spots -- point guard, shooting guard and small forward -- against Boise State.
The wins not only impacted UH's place in the standings, but also brightened the Rainbows' outlook as they head back on the road.
"Everybody's confidence is just up there right now. Everybody's coming to practice motivated," Sensley said. "Coach has been real positive with us, everybody's just in a positive zone right now."