RAINBOW WARRIOR BASKETBALL
TONY AVELAR / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Hawaii point guard Deonte Tatum is one of four seniors playing their final home games for the Rainbow Warriors this week.
Second at stake
Hawaii is one of four teams with five losses battling to be the WAC runner-up
WHO SAYS nobody cares about second place?
With Nevada poised to clinch the Western Athletic Conference's regular-season championship, the runner-up spot becomes first prize for the survivor of a four-team battle for second.
Hawaii and New Mexico State are among the teams in the fray and face each other tomorrow night looking to extend their winning streaks and remain in contention for the second seed at next week's WAC tournament.
HAWAII VS. NEW MEXICO STATE
When: Tomorrow, 7:05 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: Live, KFVE (Ch. 5)
Radio: Live, KKEA 1420-AM
Internet: Audio, Sportsradio1420.com; video, hawaiiantelmedia.com
Tickets: $22 (lower level-single seats only), $18 (upper level-adult), $5 (upper-students), $3 (upper-UH students), $5 (Super Rooter/Manoa Maniacs)
"It's real big," said UH center Chris Botez, one of four Rainbow seniors playing their final home games this week. "We have to work hard and if we can get second place, it'll be good for us and we'll go into the WAC tournament ready."
The Rainbow Warriors (16-9, 9-5) have a three-game winning streak working and enter the league contest winners of their last six games at the Stan Sheriff Center. The Aggies (15-12, 10-5), meanwhile, have won six straight overall to ascend to a surprising tie for second in the WAC.
So something will have to give when NMSU visits Honolulu for the first time as a WAC member.
Tip-off for the opening game of UH's final homestand of the season is set for 7:05 p.m. The Rainbows end the regular season with their annual senior night festivities Saturday against Louisiana Tech at 5:05 p.m.
UH, NMSU, LaTech and Utah State all have five league losses entering tomorrow's action and are jockeying for second through fifth place. Nevada has secured at least a share of the regular-season title and a win this week will give the Wolf Pack the outright title.
The WAC race followed pretty close to what was predicted in the preseason coaches poll -- which had Nevada first followed by Utah State, Hawaii and Louisiana Tech -- with the notable exception of New Mexico State.
The Aggies, under first-year coach Reggie Theus, were expected to linger near the bottom of the league in their first WAC season and were picked eighth by the coaches and seventh by the media.
But with a strong start to the conference season and their current winning streak, the Aggies enter their final game tied with LaTech.
New Mexico State picked up home wins over San Jose State, LaTech and Idaho over a six-day span last week and enter its final game 3-4 on the road in WAC play.
"They've got two really good guards and a big man, and they create a lot of havoc for the league," UH coach Riley Wallace said.
"They've done a good job with what they've got, but there's talent there, so they've been able to win on the road."
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii's Chris Botez, center left, blocked a jumper by Boise State's Coby Karl with the help of Ahmet Gueye, top, last month.
Dictating the pace of the game will be a key for both teams tomorrow.
In their meeting last month, NMSU lured UH into a running game and claimed an 87-84 win in Las Cruces. UH, led by Julian Sensley's career-high 32 points, shot the ball well that night (50 percent), but faltered down the stretch in letting a 12-point lead slip away.
NMSU ranks second in the league with 72.5 points per game in WAC contests. UH is sixth at 69.9.
"They can score a lot of points, they want that up-tempo game," Wallace said. "We can't get into a between-the free-throw-line kind of game, because that's where they beat you out there in the middle. We've got to play good solid defense and try to keep their penetration down."
Forward Tyrone Nelson (18.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game) has led the Aggies in scoring in each of the last five games, and speedy guards Elijah Ingram (13.3 ppg) and Mike Mitchell (13 ppg) set the pace for NMSU's transition attack.
"It'll be interesting ... because (the Rainbows) are much bigger than us and the matchups are tough," said NMSU assistant coach Gus Hauser, filling in for Theus in this week's WAC teleconference. "I think it'll be a game that we would like to create a lot of tempo and I would think Hawaii would want to do probably the opposite. It's a real challenge, but I think our kids are excited about it."
Ingram left Saturday's game against Idaho with a hamstring injury and Hauser said he didn't know whether the junior would be ready for tomorrow's game.