UC Davis edges Warriors, 68-65, in semi’s

Hawai’i seniors Bernado da Silva (left) and Justin McKoy chase down a loose ball ahead of UC Davis’ Elijah Pepper, who finished with a game-high 25 points Friday night at the Hercules Tires Big West Conference Championship semifinals in Henderson, Nev. (Brandon Flores Photography photo)

HENDERSON, Nev. — The University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team’s Big West Conference season that was full of roller coaster rides ended in the wildest one of all Friday night, as the Warriors rallied from big deficits twice but fell just short to UC Davis, 68-65, in the Championship semifinals.

A vocal crowd of 1,919 at the Dollar Loan Center Arena — most of them UH fans dressed in green, white and black — watched league Player of the Year Elijah Pepper score a game-high 25 points and fellow senior guard Kane Milling add 14 points and seven rebounds as the Aggies improved to 20-12 and advanced to Saturday’s title showdown against Long Beach State (20-14).

Senior center Bernardo da Silva scored 14 points with three rebounds and senior point guard Juan Munoz added 11 points, three boards and three assists for the Warriors, who likely ended their season at 20-14.

When asked if there is the possibility of Hawai’i playing in another postseason tournament other than the NCAA’s or the NIT, Warriors coach said, “Right now we’re focused on today … we’ll take a breath and have conversations later.”

UH athletic director Craig Angelos said his conversation with Ganot regarding tournament options will happen before Monday, as most conference championships will be finalized Saturday and the NCAA and NIT selections will happen on Sunday afternoon.

In the meantime, the Warriors are trying to come to grips with Friday’s loss, in which they fought back from a 16-point deficit in the first half and then recovered from being down 17 with 10:47 remaining in the game. With Hawai’i trailing, 66-65, senior guard Noel Coleman made a steal at halfcourt at the 20-second mark and eventually worked the ball to fellow senior guard JoVon McClanahan, whose fadeaway 15-footer from the left wing rimmed out and was rebounded by Pepper with 1.2 ticks on the clock.

Pepper was immediately fouled and sank both free throws to make it 68-65. Justin McKoy then made a 65-foot pass to McClanahan, who had to jump and catch the ball with one foot landing out of bounds at 0:0.3 showing.

“No. 1, give credit to Davis, their staff and their program, we’ve had a lot of these kind of battles with them,” Ganot said. “This was a little different, because of the starts to each half, but it became one of those battles.”

The Aggies, who earned a double-bye straight into the semifinals after finishing as Big West regular season runner-up, came out of the gates blazing to leads of 11-2, 13-4 and 22-6 in the first eight minutes-plus. After da Silva responded with a nifty lefty layup at the 11:07 mark to ignite a 12-2 run, McKoy capped it with a putback at 5:23 to close it to 24-18.

Pepper answered with a 3-pointer 15 seconds later, but Akira Jacobs matched it with a 3 with 4:44 remaining to start an 11-4 surge ending with da Silva’s thunderous slam dunk just 2.5 seconds before halftime to make it 31-29 at the break.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the Hawai’i program and their coaching staff, and we knew there was gonna be no quit (in them),” UC Davis coach Jim Les said. “And they kept coming, and they made plays. We weren’t always as sharp over 40 minutes, but I give a lot of credit to Hawai’i, it’s a senior-laden group and you could tell they were fighting to live for another day.”

The Aggies opened the second half with a stunning 17-2 run capped by Pablo Tamba’s slam dunk to extend the lead to 48-31, and Tamba’s free throw with 10:47 left made it 58-41.

“I’m disappointed with the way we came out in each half, if you take those out, it’s a different game,” Ganot said. “But that being said, I’m really proud of our team. We had the mentality to win the game … (just) their fight, twice.”

Coleman started the comeback with a driving layup with 9:20 remaining, and da Silva capped an 11-2 surge with a lefty baseline hook to close it to 60-52 with 6:36 left. A minute later, Pepper swished a 15-foot fadeaway from the free throw line to push the lead to 64-52, but da Silva sank two free throws to spark a 13-2 run culminating in McClanahan’s three-point play which cut it to 66-65 with 27.8 seconds remaining.

“I just think that shows how resilient our team was throughout the whole year,” Munoz said. “We put ourselves in a hole to start each half, and we just kept fighting. There were several times when we could have just laid down and gave up, but I don’t think that’s in our m.o., and that’s something that we’re proud of. Again we don’t want to be down 16 or 17, but I just know we’re going to fight. We were in the huddle just telling each other, ‘There’s plenty of time left, especially for guys like us.’ ”

After Coleman intercepted a pass at halfcourt on UC Davis’ next possession with 20 ticks left, the ball worked to McClanahan on the left wing, where he attempted a quick fallaway jumper with about 0:04 on the clock.

“When (McClanahan) was going down, my heart was kind of down in my stomach a little bit,” Pepper said. “I thought (the shot) might have gone in, and then when I saw it come off, I was just ready to go up and I got pushed in the back and was able to get the foul there.”

McClanahan, who made a memorable buzzer-beater against Southern Methodist University to help the Rainbow Warriors win their first Diamond Classic championship about 14 months ago, said he also thought the ball had a chance to drop into the net.

“We had time to get a (good) shot off, which we did,” McClanahan said. “I don’t know, man … I thought it was in. But that’s just basketball.”

Ganot said this was a very tough loss, but he admires his team’s fight through adversity, which actually started before tipoff when key reserve forward Harry Rhouliadeff was not cleared to play and instead showed up in street clothes.

“You don’t want to put yourself behind, but we fell behind 22-6 then cut it to two, and then spotted them (17 points) again, and then cut it to one — with the ball,” Ganot said. “Perspective is everything. We talked about the possessions, talked about the start of each half … I could take that out. I’m very proud of our team, our kids. We had a man down with Harry, and they fought all year.

“I wish we could have played one more game, and we certainly gave ourselves an opportunity to do that. It hurts right now, as you can imagine. There’s a finality that hits you, the emotions, the quality of people in our program. But I told them to keep their head up, sit up straight and thank everybody.”

Hercules Tires Big West Championships (at Dollar Loan Center Arena, Henderson, Nev.)

Friday’s semifinals

Long Beach State 83, UC Irvine 79
UC Davis 68, HAWAI’I 65

Saturday’s championship game

Long Beach State vs. UC Davis, 3:30 p.m. (HST)

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