Hawaii to face UC Santa Barbara in Big West championship game

Mar. 11—Relying on an opportunistic offense and menacing defense, the Rainbow Wahine defeated Long Beach State 67-62 to advance to today's championship game of the Big West Tournament.

HENDERSON, NEV.—Because of what happened in a suburb of Vegas the Hawaii women's basketball team will get to stay in Vegas.

Relying on an opportunistic offense and menacing defense, the Rainbow Wahine defeated Long Beach State 67-62 to advance to today's championship game of the Big West Tournament. The Wahine will face UC Santa Barbara, a 75-66 semifinal winner over Cal State Bakersfield behind Alexis Tucker's 28 points.

"We have a group of girls who have experienced this, " UH coach Laura Beeman said of the Wahine's second consecutive appearance in the title game. "They know what it's going to feel like. They're up for the challenge. This is why we flew up here. We didn't fly here to lose."

The second-seeded Beach won both regular-season meetings against the Wahine. But before a UH-partisan crowd of 1, 119 in the Dollar Loan Center, the Wahine were able to find gaps in the Beach's 1-3-1 zone and eventual full-court press. The Wahine hit five 3s in the third quarter to create separation from a 21-all tie at the half.

"It's not fun when you go into the fourth quarter and you're down 10 points, " LBSU coach Jeff Cammon said of the 57-47 deficit with 2 :18 to play. "Against a team like Hawaii, it's a championship pedigree. They have some young ladies who have played in big games. They weren't afraid of the moment. They made some big shots, some big plays. We did, but we just didn't make enough."

The Beach made a late push. But UH point guard Lily Wahinekapu's poised leadership and ball-handling helped withstand two LBSU 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds. Wahinekapu scored 18 points and committed only two turnovers in 37 minutes, 54 seconds.

"Impressive, " Beeman said of Wahinekapu's performance. "When she's on the floor and she has the ball in her hands, these guys know we're in good shape. They know to be available for her when she needs it. But she executed a brilliant game plan."

In the previous two meetings, the Wahine had difficulty navigating the Beach's zone and lengthy defenders.

During the intermission, Beeman emphasized inside-out ball movement, not rotational passing, to catch the Beach late on defensive switches. That opened the way for Meilani McBee and Daejah Phillips to launch 3s.

When the Beach doubled on a ball-handler on the wing, the Wahine would loft passes to 6-foot-4 Imani Perez in the post. It was basketball's version of a receiver exploiting the back end of a blitzing defense.

"For Imani, she knows I'm going to give her the ball, and it's going to be up high, " Phillips said.

Perez, who was 5-for-6 in the paint, said : "Personally, I know my team is really good at assisting, especially Daejah. I just kind of depend on them to get it high. That's kind of where I tell them pass it to me because it's better for me. I knew once (teammates ) started hitting their 3s, other things would open up, which was very helpful for our team."

After the game, Beeman presented Perez with the nickname "What the Heck, " as in making "everybody in our conference go, 'what the heck.'"

Beeman said : "For Imani as a freshman to just show up and be like, 'Coach, let's go play basketball, ' that's kind of her demeanor. There's focus. There's intensity. She's coachable. The way she's playing end of season is absolutely what you want from all your players. If you get it from a freshman, that's icing on the cake."

The Beach entered hitting 31.2 % of their 3-point attempts. But they missed 18 of their first 23 shots from behind the arc before connecting on the two late 3s when the outcome was essentially decided. Guard Tori Harris, the Big West's Player of the Year, was 2-for-14, missing all six 3-point attempts, and finished with six points.

"I think they executed the game plan brilliantly—who to come off, who to shade, who we needed to play up on, " Beeman said of the Wahine's defense. "That was one our keys. We could not give up the offensive boards."

Cammon said : "We just didn't execute. That's not us defensively. The amount of breakdowns we had on the defensive end, you don't typically see that from this team. That's my fault. They weren't prepared enough, and that's on the coaching."

Offensively, Cammon said, "I thought we settled. I would say (UH ) worked for quality shots versus us settling for 3-pointers. And we really stopped attacking the basket. I thought the physicality bothered us. We didn't stay the course with that."

UC Santa Barbara 75, Cal State Bakersfield 66 Alexis Tucker played all 40 minutes and scored 28 points to help the Gauchos (21-11, 12-8 ) over the Roadrunners (8-23, 3-17 ) and into the Big West final.

Tucker, who averages 30 minutes a game, never left the floor and scored 10 of her points on 14 attempts from the free-throw line. She added seven rebounds and committed only one turnover.

Ila Lane scored 12 points in 38 minutes and Anya Choice was UC Santa Barbara's other iron woman with nine points in 37 minutes.

Taylor Caldwell also played the entire game for Cal State Bakersfield, scoring 15 points and pulling down nine rebounds.

Hennie van Schaik contributed 14 points and Grace Hunter scored 12.

The Roadrunners were whistled for 30 fouls to 14 by the Gauchos.