Warriors face No. 23-ranked Saint Mary’s Friday in ‘#Maui Strong’ charity exhibition

The UH men’s basketball team will play host to No. 23-ranked Saint Mary’s in a charity exhibition game at 7 p.m. Friday in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center. Proceeds from the game will benefit the #Maui Strong campaign, for wildfire victims.

The University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team will open its 2023-24 campaign with a big bang — some 25 days before the regular season actually begins.

In a rare but well-placed opportunity, the Warriors will face No. 23-ranked Saint Mary’s at 7 p.m. Friday in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center. Proceeds from the game will benefit Maui wildfires victims; under NCAA rules, such a charity exhibition is the only way two Division I teams can play each other before November.

Tickets for the game — including $20 general admission for adults and $10 for students — are on sale via etickethawaii.com, and group rate tickets also are available, with group youth tickets set at only $3 each.

“We were in Japan on our foreign tour (two months ago) when we heard the tragic news of all that was going on with Maui, we sent our thoughts and prayers from afar,” Warriors coach Eran Ganot said. “But we talked about what we can do beyond thoughts and prayers … and our platform allows us to do a charity exhibition game. So I reached out to my former boss, Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s, and I’m just really appreciative of everybody here in Hawai’i, everybody at Saint Mary’s, our sponsors — Outrigger and beyond — who have stepped up recently and will (again) in the next couple days.

“We’ve talked at length about a lot of lives lost (in the wildfires), families displaced, buildings and structures down, community impacted … and with that, we have an opportunity here with our great kids, Top 25 Saint Mary’s, our awesome fans … for Maui. I know our guys are very excited about the opportunity to give back. It’s going to be a long journey, and this is a touchpoint, and we’re going to try and continue to have touchpoints as we do our part to help those in need.”

UH senior guard Juan Munoz said win or lose, the most important thing about this game is how it will benefit victims of the wildfires.

“We’re excited to play Saint Mary’s, they’re a great team, a Top 25 team,” Munoz said. “But at the end of the day, this is bigger than basketball. So we want to give all the support to Maui any way we can, and when Coach Ganot brought this opportunity to us, we were all excited, we all jumped on board. You can’t beat a basketball game to support Maui.”

Despite being labeled an “exhibition,” the game promises high entertainment value.

The Gaels return three starters from last season’s team which finished No. 19 in the final AP poll and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Homegrown product Aidan Mahaney, a 6-foot-3 guard, was a finalist for the Kyle Macy Award given to the nation’s top freshman, and senior forward Alex Ducas (6-7) and senior center Mitchell Saxen (6-10) joined Mahaney on the Preseason All-West Coast Conference First Team.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett has had a major influence on Ganot, who served under Bennett on the Gaels staff from 2003-2006 and 2010-2014. Now in his 23rd season, Bennett has a career record of 507-208 for an impressive winning percentage of .709 and has taken teams to nine NCAA Tournament appearances.

“I spent eight years working for him in two stints, learned a lot from him,” said Ganot, who is entering his ninth season as head coach at Hawai’i. “He’s a big part of my life … I’m thankful for him, I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country, if not the best. He continues to do it year in and year out, and he does it for all the right reasons. So I’m very appreciative of him stepping up with this opportunity.”

Ganot said seeing Saint Mary’s up close can serve as an example for where the UH program can someday be.

“We all know it doesn’t happen overnight,” Ganot said. “We’ve had six straight winning seasons, we’re coming off a 22-win season, we want more. I was fortunate to be (at Saint Mary’s) in two stints, and I saw it grow from a consistently good program to an NCAA Tournament program to now a consistent Top 25 program. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the journey is worthwhile, and that is our goal. We’re trying to break through, sometimes that step is the hardest, but that is where our focus is at.

“So just being able to play in this setting, an October game against that caliber of a program … they’re inside-outside, they’re disciplined on both ends, they’re balanced, they’re physical, they’re tough, they’re experienced … what a great challenge to have.”

Munoz says the Warriors are up to the test, and not far off from the example Saint Mary’s has set. UH returns nine players, including starters JoVon McClanahan (point guard), Noel Coleman (shooting guard) and Bernardo da Silva (center), from a team that went 22-11.

“They definitely set the bar for us, and it’s just something we’re working toward, to be a Top 25 team,” Munoz said. “If we keep working and getting better … I definitely think we have the pieces to be in that category.”

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