Hawaii's Jeff Blackett put up a shot over UTEP's Omar Thomas during Monday night's game.

Rainbows want to jump
before WAC tournament

The plan might seem simple if it weren't so difficult.

With four games left in the regular season, the Hawaii basketball team needs to climb one spot in the Western Athletic Conference standings to avoid having to play a first-round game at the league tournament next month.

The problem is two of the Rainbow Warriors' remaining games are on the road, where they're 1-6 in WAC play, and one of the home games left is against the conference's top team.

So staying out of the tournament "play-in" game probably falls into the easier-said-than-done category.

"We've got four left, two at home, two on the road, then we hit that tournament and we'll see what happens," UH coach Riley Wallace said.

"We can still make up ground if we take care of business."

The Rainbows left themselves little wiggle room coming down the stretch after losing a home game against Texas-El Paso on Monday. The 71-67 defeat dropped the 'Bows to 14-9 overall and 6-8 in the conference heading into a road trip this weekend.

The team left town yesterday morning bound for Oklahoma for its final regular-season trek to the mainland. The Rainbows face Tulsa (7-17, 3-11 WAC) on Friday, then move on to Houston, where they'll play Rice (14-10, 8-6) on Sunday.

UH's adventures in travel continued yesterday as the team's scheduled flight from Denver to Tulsa was rerouted, forcing the 'Bows to take a later flight.

UH returns home next week to close the schedule against first-place and nationally ranked Nevada on March 3 and Fresno State on March 5 before heading to Reno for the WAC tournament, which runs March 8-12.

Hawaii is currently seventh in the league, just behind Southern Methodist (7-7) and Fresno State (8-7).

The difference between sixth and seventh place is significant because the tournament's seventh through 10th seeds must win a first-round game just to join the top six teams in the quarterfinals.

The "play-in" game winners then face either the first or second seed. Since 2001, no play-in game participant has advanced past the quarterfinals.

UH has placed no lower than sixth in the regular season since 2000 and will need to finish strong over the final two weeks to shorten its path to the WAC tournament title.

"It's important, but we have to worry about just winning now," Wallace said of avoiding a first-round game. "It's important because it's tough to win four in a row. We just have to win four in a row here (to end the regular season) and we don't have to worry about four in a row there."

As the tournament approaches, the emphasis shifts from the big men who have dominated the WAC's statistical categories during the regular season to the guards who could hold their teams' postseason fate in their hands.

Guards who can control the game while avoiding turnovers are at a premium in a tournament setting and UTEP's Filiberto Rivera again proved he's perhaps the WAC's best in Monday's game.

Rivera scored 15 points and dished out six assists against UH, repeatedly frustrating the Rainbows with either a deft pass to an open teammate or a cat-quick drive to the basket at a crucial moment.

"He's as good a point guard as has been there in a long time, that's why they win," Wallace said. "They've got guys who are role players and he's a coach on the floor."

Rivera leads the WAC in assists with 166 while committing just 50 turnovers. He is the main reason the Miners average a league-low 12.6 turnovers per game.

"You're not going to be very good without a point guard," UTEP coach Doc Sadler said. "Point guards are the difference in the close games."

Turnovers proved costly for UH in a loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee last Saturday when the 'Bows gave the ball away 21 times. That number shrunk to four against the Miners, but each proved just as damaging in a see-saw second half.

Hawaii has lost four of its last five games after UTEP completed a season sweep of the Rainbows. UH's largest margin of defeat this season is six points and although reflecting on the close losses can be maddening, the team continues to search for silver linings.

"We just have to keep fighting," senior guard Jake Sottos said. "It's frustrating. We all want to win and we all hate losing, so we'll just keep fighting and good things will happen.

"It's good experience going into the WAC tournament. We know we can play with them. Next time we'll get them."

WAC standings

WAC Overall

W L Pct. GB W L
Nevada 13 2 .867 -- 21 5
UTEP 11 4 .733 2 21 7
Rice 8 6 .571 4 1/2 14 10
Louisiana Tech 8 6 .571 4 1/2 13 11
Fresno State 8 7 .533 5 14 11
SMU 7 7 .500 5 1/2 12 11
Hawaii 6 8 .429 6 1/2 14 9
Boise State 5 10 .333 8 12 15
Tulsa 3 11 .214 9 1/2 7 17
San Jose State 3 11 .214 9 1/2 6 18

Hawaii at Tulsa, 3:05 p.m.
San Jose State at Rice, 3: 05 p.m.
Louisiana Tech at UTEP, 4:05 p.m.
SMU at Boise State, 4:30 p.m.

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