Time ran out on guard Matt Lojeski and the Rainbow Warriors in their opening game of the WAC tournament.
Rainbows remember the hurt
A promising season ends with a point guard in the paint
RENO, Nev. » The sight of Deonte Tatum, a 6-foot-3 guard, battling New Mexico State's big men during Thursday's Western Athletic Conference tournament game was emblematic of the Hawaii basketball team's predicament late this season.
The depth that was expected to be the Rainbow Warriors' strength suddenly dried up in December, and went alarmingly shallow when Ahmet Gueye suffered a knee injury just before the final game of the regular season.
The losses left coach Riley Wallace to cobble together a rotation with the eight scholarship players left on the roster, putting players in unfamiliar positions on the court in order to give others a break during the quarterfinal game against NMSU.
Freshman guard Dominic Waters made his second start, and Tatum, UH's starting point guard, spent part of the game playing in the paint rather than on the perimeter.
"That's what made this team special," Wallace said following the close loss. "Because you have Deonte Tatum playing the four spot (power forward) in the zone. He went all the way down to the big men. And you had Waters, who's a point guard, playing over on the wing.
"But they were going to play anywhere we asked them to play because we were down to that many. ... They never made any excuses, they all felt like they were going to win this game. That's why I'm proud of them."
Despite the patchwork lineup, the Rainbows controlled the tempo of the contest, built a seven-point lead in the second half, and had two shots to win the game in the final seconds before falling 58-57.
Thursday's game may have been an elimination contest for the Rainbows and Aggies, not only in their quest for the WAC championship but for a National Invitation Tournament berth as well.
NMSU coach Reggie Theus left the Lawlor Events Center confident that the 16-13 Aggies would be playing beyond this week.
"I think this gives us, in my opinion, an excellent chance to be in the NIT," Theus said. "In fact, I don't see any reason why we don't make it to the NIT."
UH's prospects of playing another game are considerably dimmer after losing their last two games after winning seven of their previous eight games to make a push for the postseason.
Playing deep into March appeared to be a highly reachable goal in the fall, when a deep UH team knocked off Michigan State 84-62 and began WAC play with a win over Utah State.
But junior guards Matt Gibson, UH's leading scorer last season, and Bobby Nash were sidelined in December and will seek medical hardships. With them went much of the Rainbows' perimeter scoring off the bench.
Senior center Milos Zivanovic, who played sparingly but provided depth in the post, also decided to return home during the Rainbow Classic.
The starting five remained intact until Gueye's injury, and losing their top rebounder and a member of the WAC's All-Defensive Team proved difficult to overcome.
"You don't want to use excuses because New Mexico State beat us and played well tonight and it was a great game," Wallace said. "But you lose someone of the value and the strength of our center, that's tough, especially in the system that we run."
Mirror, mirror: The Hawaii basketball teams followed eerily similar paths during the WAC season.
Both the men's and women's teams struggled in January, before rolling through February with 6-1 records to finish in the top half of the conference standings.
They ended the regular season with wins over NMSU, followed by losses to Louisiana Tech, then lost in their first games at the WAC tournament. It was the third straight opening loss for the women and the third consecutive quarterfinal defeat for the men as well.
Now both are left hoping for a bid in the NIT and WNIT.
Numbers game: UH's senior class of Tatum, Chris Botez, Matthew Gipson and Julian Sensley accounted for all but 10 points against NMSU and had 16 of the Rainbows' 29 rebounds. ... Free-throw shooting again dogged the 'Bows as they went 7-for-16 from the line on Thursday. ... When Sensley was substituted for in the first half it was the first time in four games he went to the bench. He has played an even 1,000 minutes this season.