Warriors deny UH Hilo in opener, 82-66

Senior forward Justin McKoy scored 15 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished two assists and blocked two shots in his first official game for UH, after transferring from North Carolina. (Brandon Flores photo)

The win was worth the wait for the University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team Tuesday night, as the Warriors denied visiting intrastate rival UH Hilo, 82-66, in their long-awaited season opener.

A mellow but appreciative crowd of 1,796 in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center watched senior forward Justin McKoy score 15 points and grab six rebounds, freshman guard Tom Beattie add 12 points and four boards, and senior guard Noel Coleman contribute 10 points. Charles Elzie III scored a game-high 23 points, Kalique Mitchell added 15 points and a game-high nine rebounds and Amiri Crowder contributed 11 points for the Vulcans, who remain 3-2 since this game was classified as an exhibition for them.

Hawai’i led 33-15 late in the first half, but Hilo closed it to 37-29 early in the second half before the Warriors used a 14-5 run to pull away and did not allow the Vulcans to come within single digits again.

“It was good to play, we need to play,” UH coach Eran Ganot said. “It was not ideal for when our first game was, we played a team that was in their sixth game, and we were in our first. I really appreciate how we came out of the gates, it felt like a first game — a lot of highlights, some low lights, inconsistencies, individually, collectively, bright spots, things to work on … but you could see the potential. Obviously, we’re still working on a lot of combinations, and lineups.

“Credit Hilo, playing a full 40 (minutes), I thought there were several opportunities for us to separate, but they kept coming back. I’m not surprised by that, they’re going to have a great year. They did some things today that will make us better.”

The Warriors jumped out to leads of 12-4, 24-12 and 33-15 before the Vulcans closed it to 35-23 at halftime. Hawai’i held Hilo to 32.3 percent (10 for 31) shooting in the first half, including 0 for 9 from 3-point range. The Vulcans entered the game averaging over 76 points per outing, with four players averaging double figures.

“I think we stressed defense a lot this week, we knew Hilo has some guys on their team who can really go,” said reserve guard Juan Munoz, who scored nine points, grabbed three rebounds and dished three assists in his first official game for UH after missing the past two seasons due to injury. “So we were really locked in on the scout, and knowing where to be, what to do. Hat’s off to them, they played really well, especially in the second half, but I think part of our scout was to really lock in on defense.”

The Vulcans began the second half with a 6-2 run capped by Carlos Ramsey, Jr.’s jumper which closed it to 37-29 two minutes in. But the Warriors responded with their 14-5 run culminating in McKoy’s 3-pointer from the right wing to push the lead to 51-34 with 12:43 remaining.

Hilo got as close as 73-62 with 2:32 left on Zoar Nedd’s 3-pointer from beyond the top of the key, but Beattie answered with a three-point play and Kody Williams eventually sealed the victory on a layup with 1:23 remaining to push the lead to 78-64.

“I thought we competed, we played a lot of guys and I thought everyone competed,” said McKoy, a 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from North Carolina who added two blocks and two assists. “I thought we put together a good game for the most part, played 32 minutes well. We gotta clean up the rest of it, the other eight. But I’m proud of the guys, (for) our first win. Winning isn’t easy in college basketball, so to get a win is good.”

UH’s next game is against visiting Niagara (0-2) at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Purple Eagles lost at Notre Dame, 70-63, on Nov. 6 and to Bucknell at home, 73-64, last Saturday.

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