UH opens Diamond Head play vs. Portland

Hawai’i senior point guard JoVon McClanahan, shown here in last Sunday’s loss to Nevada, hit the biggest shot in the Warriors’ Diamond Head Classic history last year when his 3-point buzzer-beater lifted them to a victory over Southern Methodist and the championship. (Brandon Flores photo)

For the first time in the 13-year history of the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, Hawai’i can legitimately be considered as the “team to beat.”

That’s because it’s also the first time the Warriors will enter tournament play as the reigning champion, and that title is theirs until someone knocks them out of the winners’ bracket.

Portland, UH’s first-round opponent, hopes to be that “someone” when the Pilots take on the host Warriors at 6 p.m. Thursday in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center. The game will be nationally televised live on ESPN2, and broadcast live statewide via radio on ESPN Honolulu AM1420.

The role of defending champ and “team to beat” is one the Warriors welcome and appreciate, according to senior point guard and co-captain JoVon McClanahan, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Southern Methodist lifted Hawai’i to the championship a year ago.

“That’s the thing about winning big games, is because you earn respect like that, especially winning championships,” said McClanahan, who was named tournament Most Outstanding Player. “Us being defending champions, we want to hold our heads (high) on that because it’s a big deal. But also knowing we do have to defend it. Just being ready for Portland, that’s all we can control, is doing our job against them first.”

The Pilots (6-6) are coming off a 91-63 loss at Grand Canyon, in which they were led by wing Tyler Robertson (17 points), 6-foot-8 guard Tyler Harris (15 points and 10 rebounds) and guard Chris Austin (four assists).

“They have a lot of firepower, Robertson is an All-Conference player, real dynamic and tough scoring threat as he plays inside-out,” Warriors coach Eran Ganot said. “He gets a high assist rate, he’s a good rebounder, smart player, they move him around quite a bit. Austin didn’t play for them last year, but he was a 14-15-points a game scorer for them in the past.

“They have five or six guys who are close to averaging double-digits, they shoot the 3-ball well, they’ve been streaky. But we have a lot of respect for them, it’ll be a great challenge right off the bat. I think that’s what this tournament provides — every game is a big challenge, both ways.”

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