Sports Watch

By Bill Kwon

Thursday, February 27, 1997

Sold-out arena is
special event for Rainbows

TONIGHT'S game against Fresno State is the first sellout of the season for Riley Wallace's Rainbows. Why it's only the first of the year for the University of Hawaii men's basketball team is a sad commentary about a wonderful season that ends at home Saturday night.

But, better late than never, I guess.

Wallace must have been wondering, too. But he's glad the Special Events Arena is sold out for tonight. And if the 'Bows clinch the Western Athletic Conference's Pacific Division title with a victory over the Bulldogs, don't be surprised if the home finale against San Jose State is a sellout, too.

It'd be a nice aloha send-off for the Rainbows to the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas next week. And, who knows? A possible NCAA bid. That would turn a remarkable season into a dream year for Wallace and his 'Bows.

Tonight's sellout is the first for the basketball 'Bows since the 1994-95 season, when there were five sellouts at the 10,225-seat campus arena. The first-ever was against Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels. The next three were in the Rainbow Classic that December in games against Boston University, Iowa and Cincinnati.

And, finally, the season finale against Wyoming - quite a tribute to a team that was 14-12 going into the WAC postseason tournament.

If that was a sellout, why shouldn't fans turn out to pay their respects to this year's remarkable team, which is 19-5 going into tonight's game with the prospect of being Wallace's winningest team since the 1989-90 'Bows went 25-10.

But getting back to tonight's game against Fresno State.

Just having Tark the Shark prowling the opposite courtside makes me nervous. Jerry Tarkanian knows basketball, especially big games. He knows a loss to the Rainbows would mean no NCAAs for him. The 'Bows deprived his Bulldogs last year and the gleeful chuckle you heard came from the NCAA selection committee.

SO while the game's important to Jerry's Boys, it's even more critical for the Rainbows.

This, says Wallace, is the single most important regular-season game in UH's basketball history. Even more important than any Rainbow Classic championship final, according to Wallace.

"No question I think it is. It's the first time we've been in the position to win a WAC title, playing against a very talented team and having a home-court advantage. Everything's on the line."

Wallace knows that the division title and at least one victory in the WAC playoffs would make it very difficult for the NCAA committee to ignore the Rainbows when it comes to filling its 64-team field. But the Pacific Division title has to be one earned with a victory over Fresno State and not one gained by default should the Bulldogs lose at San Diego State.

So Riley doesn't have to impress upon his players the importance of tonight's game. "They know what they have to do," he said.

IN fact, Wallace is worried that they'll be too pumped up with all the crowd noise and adrenaline flowing. If anything, he's got to hold them back, making sure they play under control.

You can't take anything for granted in sports. That's why they play the game. And, historically, the Rainbows - in any sport - haven't fared too well in games when everything is on the line.

This year's basketball 'Bows have accomplished more than even the most optimistic UH fan thought was impossible. They've been a team with an attitude that even altitude didn't matter, being the first to sweep back-to-back games at Wyoming and Colorado State.

They know that destiny's in their own hands. The title's there for the taking. It's hard to imagine they'll double-dribble it now.

Bill Kwon has been writing
about sports for the Star-Bulletin since 1959.

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