Hawaii's Jeff Blackett, left, and Julian Sensley battled for a rebound against Coastal Carolina on Friday.

Salukis present tough test

The Hawaii basketball team passed its first two exams of the new season last week, but the Rainbow Warriors are cramming for perhaps their sternest test of the nonconference schedule.

The Rainbows host Southern Illinois tomorrow at the Stan Sheriff Center in a rematch of last year's Bracket Busters game won by the Salukis. SIU has played in the NCAA Tournament each of the past three years, emerging as one of the nation's top mid-major programs.

"It'll show us where we're at," UH forward Jeff Blackett said. "It's a good place to take a look and see where we are at this point in the season and what we need to work on.

"It's going to be a battle and I think we're ready."

The game is a payback for Hawaii's visit to Carbondale, Ill., last year. SIU edged the 'Bows 66-62 before a maroon-clad crowd at SIU Arena and UH coach Riley Wallace hopes the home fans can return the favor tomorrow.

The game has been dubbed "Black Out" night. The 'Bows will unveil their new black uniforms and the UH athletic department is encouraging fans to wear black shirts to the game.

"The atmosphere (at last year's game) was awesome and it helped them. I just hope we can throw something back at them," Wallace said. "You'd like to see that bowl black and showing support for these guys, because they obviously play on emotion.

"It'll be a real good test to see whether or not we're ready to be playing prime-time games."

One question mark heading into tomorrow night's game is the playing status of Matthew Gipson. The junior forward did not attend yesterday morning's practice.

Wallace did meet with Gipson later in the day and his availability will be determined at today's practice.

"It affects you; as to what, I don't know," Wallace said.

The Rainbows enter the game riding the momentum of their dramatic comeback victory over Coastal Carolina on Friday. UH trailed by 22 in the second half before rallying for a 72-65 win.

Though encouraged by their second-half performance, the 'Bows know they can't afford to put themselves in a hole against the Salukis.

"We played terrible in that first half," said Blackett, who scored 20 of his career-high 22 points in the second half. "That just wasn't how Coach has taught us to play and that's not how we're going to play. It's good that we came back, but we can't get in that situation again, especially against these guys."

Chris Lowery, 32, is Southern Illinois' third coach in as many years. The Salukis' success, including last year's 25-5 campaign, has raised expectations in Carbondale.

"It's at an all-time high now," said Lowery, an SIU point guard in the early 1990s. "With the success we've had in the last three years, people expect us to always be in the tournament. ... It's pretty crazy in Carbondale right now."

The Salukis spent Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas, where they won the Las Vegas Holiday Invitational, defeating Western Athletic Conference member Texas-El Paso 68-62 in the championship game yesterday.

Southern Illinois defeated Vanderbilt on Friday in the semifinals.

A key for the Rainbows tomorrow will be to handle SIU's defensive pressure. The Salukis forced 24 turnovers and had 21 steals in last year's win over UH.

"They could be the best we face all year," Wallace said of SIU's defense. "They really get after you and they'll trap the ball; they have a lot of quickness and the majority of those kids played together and know what they're doing."

The SIU traveling party should arrive in Honolulu this afternoon, but the Salukis aren't dwelling on the effects of the lengthy road trip.

"We try not to talk about it because we don't want to use it as an excuse," Lowery said. "It'll obviously be taxing on them mentally and physically, but if you keep telling them it's going to be tough, I think they'll start to think about it and there will be some psychological warfare going on in their minds.

"After we get done playing in Hawaii and get ready to go back, then we'll talk about how tough a trip it was."



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