Warriors play host to first-place UC Irvine

Junior guard Ryan Rapp is coming off his third straight start, a loss at Cal State Northridge in which he reached season highs in points (7), rebounds (6), assists (3) and minutes (20). (Matt Osumi file photo)

With the University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team 1-2 in the Big West Conference and coming off a 76-66 loss at Cal State Northridge, first-place UC Irvine (4-0) no doubt has come into Honolulu smelling blood in the water.

But that is fine according to UH coach Eran Ganot, whose Warriors (9-6 overall) will play host to the Anteaters (11-5) at 7 p.m. Thursday in SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center. The game will be televised live statewide on Spectrum Hawai’i Channel 12 and broadcast live via radio on ESPN Honolulu 1420AM.

“If we’re worth anything — individually or collectively — you have to want to play everybody at their best,” Ganot said. “If they smell blood or we smell blood, all that, vice versa … that’s what you live for as a competitor. We came off a tough loss, (but) we’re so fortunate to be able to practice and play again and do something about that. We have 20 (league) games, it is going to be a long journey. But absolutely, we’re going into every game wanting everybody’s best shot … and as a competitor, we should want everybody’s best shot.”

As usual, the Anteaters are expected to bring nothing less. They are coming off a 74-71 overtime home victory over UC Davis, scoring four quick points and then sinking all eight free throws in OT after guard Justin Hohn’s reverse layup with four seconds remaining in regulation to tie it at 62-62.

Center Bent Leuchten scored 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds and made a key block late in the game, and Hohn also finished with 14 points.

“They’re big every year, they’re consistent, they’re really good on the boards,” Ganot said. “There have been a lot of battles (between UH and UCI) that have gone either way. Even the last three years, I think it’s split across the board. So the intensity and physicality of the game will always bring out an intensity in our fans. Great teams, great challenge.

“We’re blessed, to come off a tough loss and be able to compete again against a great team.”

One Warrior who feels especially blessed is junior wing Ryan Rapp, who made his third straight start at CSUN and produced season highs in points (7), rebounds (6), assists (3) and minutes played (20). Rapp, a 6-foot-5 returnee who spent three seasons at Washington State, started the exhibition game versus Saint Mary’s on Oct. 20 but played a reserve role for the first 12 regular season contests.

“I’ve been hurt (injured) for probably the past two years, and it’s just been a good feeling just to stay healthy and be back out on the court,” said Rapp, who is originally from Australia. “I know I can help this team a lot, and I want to help in any way possible, whether that be starting, on the bench just motivating guys … I’m a team player, so whatever I can do to help the team.”

In the season’s first official practice on Sept. 28, Ganot cited Rapp for making a strong defensive play just seconds after getting his shot blocked at the other end. It is that spirit and hustle — combined with size and skills — that earned him a starting role the past three games.

“He’s performed well at practices, and we always like to say if you earn the right, if the opportunity is there, then we’ll reward you,” Ganot said. “That’s why we’ve said over the course of the year that guys who have earned the right, have to keep earning it, and guys who haven’t can work their way in, if the opportunity presents itself …

“Certainly we’d like to have some emergence at the wing spot, it’s been a little bit of a revolving door. Everybody’s got to go in with the mindset of doing whatever we can do to help the team win. It’s Ryan’s crack right now, and he’s got to continue to get better, but he’s coming off of one of his best games.

“He’s a big guard, and his length helped us in the last game. Even the other game, we got beat in transition and he came and made a block from the weak side. You need that from everybody, that kind of scrap. There’s so many ways to impact a game … fortunately he’s been able to show that recently, and hopefully he can build off of it.”

Rapp said he and the other Warriors are excited and up for the challenge.

“It’s a big one for us, especially coming off a loss to CSUN on the road,” Rapp said. “We gotta protect home court. I think the biggest thing for us is, we’re in a lot of close games, and we just gotta figure out how we can win these close games. Most of these games have come down to a tie or overtime, something like that. Especially our last push in the last four minutes of the game, I feel like we’ve just been out-toughed by other teams, at a certain point.

“So we just gotta find that edge to keep battling through it and get those wins.”

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