Warriors looking to slow down Niagara

Freshman guard Tom Beattie scored 12 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished two assists and made one steal off the bench in his college debut versus UH Hilo on Tuesday night. (Brandon Flores photo)

The University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team’s first opponent this season was UH Hilo, a familiar intrastate rival that makes the 55-minute plane ride to O’ahu on a regular basis.

The Warriors’ next opponent has never played UH, and has crossed four time zones over more than 4,500 miles on last-minute notice to do it at 7 p.m. Thursday in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center. The game has been designated as a “WhiteOut,” with fans encouraged to wear white.

But despite the contrast, Niagara (0-2) brings a similar offensive challenge as Hilo, which entered Tuesday night’s game averaging over 76 points per game, with four players averaging in double figures scoring. The Warriors (1-0) won, 82-66, but Niagara comes in with a much stronger strength-of-schedule.

The Purple Eagles opened their season with a 70-63 loss at Notre Dame on Nov. 6, then lost to Bucknell at home (Lewiston, N.Y.) last Saturday, 73-64.

“I watched them play at Notre Dame (on film), played a good Bucknell team, you could see the potential in that group,” Hawai’i coach Eran Ganot said. “They have some newcomers, I think they’re going to be one of the most improved teams as the season goes along. They have really dynamic guard play, and you’ve seen that already in their scores.”

Despite the two losses, Niagara freshman guard Ahmad Henderson was named Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week after scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds in his college debut at South Bend, Ind., then pouring in a game-high 28 points against Bucknell. That total is the highest for a freshman in their home debut in the program’s 118-year history.

Fellow guard Luke Bumbalough scored 14 points at Notre Dame and 11 against Bucknell, and is shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

“They’re a good team, I know they got a really good freshman,” said Warriors guard Juan Munoz. “They’re kind of like Hilo, a high-pressure team. So I think (we’ll) really lock in, point of emphasis is defense, just continue to make sure our defense is sharp, no lapses. Keep boxing out and getting rebounds.”

Ganot said the Purple Eagles are pretty solid on defense, as well.

“They’ve been really tough to score on, because they can throw different challenges defensively,” Ganot said. “They have a (7-foot) 280-pound big inside (Harlan Obioha), who is big and experienced and he’s actually a really good passer, he knows how to play. And they run really good stuff. Defensively (they’re) scrappy, the versatility they have offensive and defensively with size inside … That’s a (coaching) staff that knows what they’re doing.

“They’ll be really prepared for us, and both teams want to play games. So it’s a quick turnaround and a challenge with a well-coached team.”

For UH, one of the highlights of Tuesday’s victory was the play of newcomers Justin McKoy (15 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks) and Tom Beattie (12 points, four boards, two assists, one steal). McKoy, a 6-8 forward, is a highly touted grad transfer from North Carolina who also played for Virginia. Beattie is a 6-4 freshman guard from Auckland, New Zealand.

“Tom Beattie is going to be special, he’s always in the gym, always putting in the work,” Munoz said. “So to see what he did (Tuesday), it didn’t really surprise us, because we know what kind of work he’s been putting in behind the scenes. I’m just happy for him, and I hope he continues to grow and keep working and become the player he can be.”

McKoy was equally impressed.

“I’m a big fan of Tom Beattie, love him,” McKoy said. “He’s just a big guard, physical, can get downhill, looks to pass. I think he’s going to be really good for Hawai’i.”

Ganot said Beattie brings a different aspect to the Warriors’ attack.

“He’s one of those guys who is not a typical freshman because of his international competition,” Ganot said. “It’ll be fun to watch him grow, because he’s going to continue to develop his skill and experience. But he’s (already) fearless, he’ll keep coming, and that’s a great starting point to work off of. He gives us a different dynamic because he’s 6-4, a big guard, he gets in the paint.

“He needs more reps, but he’s not going to lack confidence, and he’s not going to be afraid. As the other components add to his game as he keeps working, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

As a whole, the Hawai’i coaches and players are grateful for the opportunity to play Niagara, even on short notice as the game was just added to the schedule last Friday.

“I’m excited,” Munoz said. “It’s always fun to get another game under your belt, especially early in the year you want to get as many games as you can before you get into conference (play), to build that chemistry and find your roles and make sure everybody is on the same page.”

McKoy said the long wait for the season opener made the players even more eager for competition.

“I like practice because we get to play basketball … but there’s nothing like game day,” McKoy said. “Game day is just different, so to get out here (Tuesday), just makes us hungry and ready to go for Thursday. So adding this game, it’s good for us and our development, but I think also we’re just stoked and ready to play Niagara.”

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