Wahine seniors make it to the end of the Rainbow
Four years of higher education -- on and off the basketball court -- have inexorably led four Hawaii seniors to these final few days of their college careers.
San Jose State at Hawaii
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: Live, KFVE (Ch. 5)
Tickets: $7 (adults), $5 (senior citizens), free for children ages 4-18 and UH students with valid ID
This year's class of Rainbow Wahine seniors -- Brittney Aiwohi, Emily Helmly, Amy Sanders and Callie Spooner -- have three regular season games left in UH uniforms . They make their final appearances at the Stan Sheriff Center tonight in a Western Athletic Conference game against San Jose State (11-13, 6-7 WAC).
The game, to be followed by the traditional senior night ceremony, tips off at 7 p.m.
Postgame festivities aside, tonight's game also represents a chance for the Rainbow Wahine (16-8, 7-6 WAC) to position themselves for a high seed at next month's WAC tournament. Hawaii has been gaining momentum, having won three straight and five of its last six.
This year's class would also like to leave the Sheriff Center with an accomplishment that eluded the previous three, a win in their home finale.
"I'd definitely like to win. Not so much for the seniors, but more for the direction we're going as a team," Sanders said.
Asked about playing their final home game, the UH seniors reflected on how quickly four years have passed, how much they'll miss their bonds with their teammates and how much they've learned during their time in Manoa.
The numbers testify to Sanders' basketball education. The guard from Huntington Beach, Calif., has increased her scoring output each year and enters tonight's game averaging a team-best 12.9 points per game.
She also leads the team in minutes (36.9 per game) and free-throw shooting (73 percent) and ranks ninth in the program's history in 3-pointers made with 80.
"I think I've come pretty far," Sanders said. "I've learned a lot. I've become a better player, a more all-around player and teammate. It's been a good four years."
With her college days coming to an end, Sanders prefers to view the end of her UH career as the beginning of the next chapter in her life.
"I try to look it as, 'what's next' and try to get excited about what's going to happen after," she said.
Even after her UH career is done, chances are Sanders will continue to spend her free time in the gym as she hopes to continue her playing career, perhaps overseas.
"Until they tell me I'm not allowed to, I'll still be in there," she said. "I'm going to try to make it last a little longer."
Spooner certainly learned a lot about two of her fellow seniors, rooming with Sanders early in her career and with Aiwohi this year.
"They're like sisters to me, they're closer than friends," Spooner said. "Knowing them has been a great experience and I'm sure I will know them forever."
"I think over everything I'm going to miss being around the girls the most. Coming to practice and having games and being with them every day. Afterwards I might be kind of bored."
Spooner, a 6-4 center from Vancouver, Wash., has also learned to be ready when called upon. She provided an inside presence off the bench most of her first three years and started 13 games this season. She was in the lineup for last week's win at Utah State and contributed a season-high seven points and seven rebounds.
"Against teams that are going to come in and try to be real physical with us, she's going to get in there and bang around and play," UH coach Jim Bolla said.
One UH opponent learned the hard way about Aiwohi's specialty earlier this season. Locked in a close game against Campbell, Bolla brought the Sacred Hearts graduate into the game to shoot over the Fighting Camels' zone defense. She responded by drilling three 3-pointers to spark UH to a 69-59 win.
That was one of just four appearances for Aiwohi this season, but she contributes on a daily basis with the scout team, regularly playing the role of the opposing team's top shooter.
"You see the first five playing ... but the reason they're playing is the people in practice are pushing them hard," Bolla said. "A lot of times it gets overlooked because all people see are points and rebounds on the stat sheet or in the newspaper. The practice players make us good."
An All-Interscholastic League of Honolulu pick in 2002, Aiwohi joined the team as a walk-on and worked her way into 19 games as a sophomore and 10 games last year. She's grateful for the opportunity to play Division I ball.
"You have to start from the bottom and it was good for me that way, just to learn how to play at a different level," she said.
A couple of years away from the game taught Helmly how much basketball meant to her. She transferred to UH four years ago and thought she'd left the game behind after a year at Northwest College, an NAIA school in Washington.
"I was burnt out and said, 'I think I'm done with basketball,' " she recalled. "But I missed it too much and said if I never try out I'll always wonder and have regrets about it."
She earned a place on the team as a walk-on last year, and didn't play in any games. She got into one game this season, but simply being part of the program is enough for Helmly, who rushes to afternoon practices after student-teaching at Noelani Elementary.
"For me it's not about playing time. If it was, I wouldn't be here," she said. "For me it's about the experience, it's about my teammates, and I hope to one day go into coaching so I think this will benefit me that way.
"I have no regrets. I'm thankful for the opportunity that the coaches have given me. Even though I'm not on the court every game, I still feel I'm part of the team."