RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM|
Hawaii forward Phil Martin, who made the all-tournament team, battled Fairfield's DeWitt Maxwell for a rebound.
until it mattered
The UH sophomore struggled
with his shot but hit the 3-pointer
that won the Classic
When folks recall the 40th Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic, they won't remember the number of shots Julian Sensley missed or had blocked in the tournament's championship game. The only one they'll care about is the one that mattered.
Sensley worked against Fairfield's Deng Gai, one of the nation's leading shot blockers, for most of Tuesday night's title game. And for the first 40-plus minutes, Gai frustrated the Hawaii sophomore as Sensley made just three of his first 15 attempts.
He turned down outside jumpers as Gai dared him to shoot, all the while ready to spring at Sensley with his long arms. When he went strong to the basket, Gai was there to turn him away.
But with the seconds ticking down in overtime and Fairfield up by two, Sensley -- who had missed his first five shots beyond the 3-point line -- found the ball in his grasp and didn't hesitate as Gai flew at him.
"I didn't see him; I just let it go," Sensley said.
This time the ball escaped Gai's reach and zipped through the net to send UH to a 50-49 win and its third straight Rainbow Classic title.
"That was the most important one and it went down," he said
Sensley's shot helped UH claim its ninth Classic championship and sent the Rainbow Warriors into the Western Athletic Conference season with an 8-2 record and riding a six-game winning streak.
UH opens the conference schedule against rival Fresno State on Saturday at the Stan Sheriff Center. The 'Bows then face Nevada, the preseason favorite to win the WAC, on Monday.
"We're not good enough to win the WAC right now, but we have the potential to get good enough, so we have to keep this intensity up and keep improving," UH coach Riley Wallace said.
After taking a day off yesterday, the 'Bows get back to work today to prepare for Fresno State. The Bulldogs own a 4-5 mark entering WAC play, but have won their last two games. They've proven especially stingy lately as they defeated Washington State 46-29 on Dec. 22.
"We have to work hard the next two days," Wallace said. "They're going to be a very good defensive team, we're going to see a lot of zone against them."
Hawaii's second overtime victory of the season bore a striking resemblance to the first. Like UH's win over Oregon State on Dec. 15, it took a shot by forward Phil Martin with less than 10 seconds left to send the game into overtime. And for the second time, a 3-pointer won it.
"You have to put it on the line, and fight through it even when you're tired," said UH guard Michael Kuebler, who scored 22 points against Fairfield and, like Sensley, played the entire game. "That's what the whole team did."
The Rainbows won't likely see another defensive talent like Gai for a while. The 6-foot-9 junior from Sudan blocked six shots and grabbed 18 rebounds while scoring 17 points. He was given a rousing ovation by the Sheriff Center crowd when he was introduced during the postgame awards ceremony.
"He's a big-time shot blocker," Wallace said. "He's got yo-yos for arms, they come flying out of there. If he doesn't block it, you've got to be looking for him. (Kuebler) missed layups he doesn't usually miss. He's a great player, he's got a future."
Added Sensley: "I was more concerned about him than just making the shot."
Fairfield's defense and its slowdown offense kept the score low. The Stags consistently ran the shot clock into single digits before putting up an attempt and were able to hold the lead for most of the night.
Meanwhile, UH suffered through its worst shooting night of the year, finishing at 28.8 percent. They were 4-for-25 in the first half and scored just 13 points before halftime, a tournament-record low.
"We just had to chip away at it," Kuebler said. "They stalled pretty much most of the game, ran the shot clock down, so we tried to get stops and knock down shots. It seemed like we couldn't hit anything in the first half."
Wallace credited the Rainbows' defense for keeping them in contention as they held Fairfield to 30.9 percent shooting. He added that the stall actually might have helped UH late in the game.
"Both teams were tired and they allowed us to get our wind back by waiting on us and then we played really solid defense when they tried to run their offense," he said.
This is the seventh time in 10 years and the third season in a row that UH will enter WAC play with two losses or fewer, and Wallace hopes the momentum of a classic end to the pre-conference schedule can carry over into the WAC season.
"They're fun guys to work with," Wallace said. "They get better every night, because they're coachable, you can teach them and they take it to the game. Teams with heart that learn things and continue to allow themselves to be coached get better and better."