Hawaii, Long Beach State remember better days a year ago
Right about the time Sheriff Drammeh climbed up on the rim in the Honda Center and started cutting down the net, he realized something.
“It was a cool day,” the wiry guard recalled of March 12, 2016. “I basically remember everything. It’s a day I’ll probably never forget.”
Hawaii’s 64-60 win over Long Beach State in the Big West tournament championship game is indelible for precious few of the Rainbow Warriors after an offseason of major turnover. Drammeh, Brocke Stepteau, Zach Buscher and Mike Thomas are the only players left from that team.
The coaches for UH and LBSU, Eran Ganot and Dan Monson, recall it vividly. Today’s 7 p.m. meeting at the Stan Sheriff Center is their first since UH, buoyed at key moments by its reserves, held off the 49ers to avenge a regular-season sweep and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years.
Monson still has flashbacks. Two of the returnees for the 49ers — Noah Blackwell and Justin Bibbins — missed go-ahead 3-pointers in the final minute.
“You don’t get that close to an NCAA bid and that close to winning a tournament without (having them),” Monson said. “That’ll stick with me this year, next year and hopefully until my old age sets in and can’t re-
member. Because those are great competitive battles and that was a great basketball game with a lot riding on it. And so you don’t forget that. But for this team, very few of them, I think on both sides, have a lot of motivation coming off that game.”
Ganot said it’s natural for coaches to mentally rehash moments from any number of games — but especially close title games like that. LBSU became the fourth team UH beat in a conference championship game, joining Tulsa (2001, 2002) and BYU (1994).
“We’re all sick puppies. We can’t help ourselves,” he said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs in coaching, a lot of emotion. We do it because we love it, but we’re on both sides of it all the time.”
Defending champion UH (6-9, 0-2 BWC) and preseason favorite LBSU (6-13,
1-2) have both dealt with struggles since. The 49ers are 0-11 on the road, with lopsided losses at North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA and Kansas, among others. Monson, in his 10th year at LBSU, said “I think it was the toughest” of any gauntlet of guarantee games he’s lined up, considering the travel and that his team has no rotation seniors.
Beach preseason all-conference forward Gabe Levin (12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), the team’s second-leading scorer and best rebounder, went down with a knee injury on New Year’s Eve and has yet to play in conference. He’s not expected to play today, when LBSU will try to send UH to its first
0-3 opening in the Big West.
In the backcourt, Loyola Marymount transfer Evan Payne (14.0 ppg) is LBSU’s latest marquee Division I pickup, replacing much of what the departed Nick Faust gave the 49ers last year. The 5-foot-8 Bibbins (11.1 ppg, 4.3 apg) represents an intriguing matchup for UH’s 5-foot-9 point guard Stepteau.
The biggest challenge for UH could be up front.
LBSU, which dominated the boards by 19 in a 14-point road win at the Sheriff last January, rolls with a front line of 255-pound Temidayo Yussuf, 235-pound Roschon Prince and 255-pound Mason Riggins off the bench. None top 6-8, but while UH is comparable in height — Jack Purchase (200 pounds), Gibson Johnson (220), Ido Flaisher (225) — it gives up a ton in weight.
“They’re picked to win the league for a reason — it’s not because they’re one-dimensional,” Ganot said. “They have several stars and they have great depth. That’s what championship-caliber teams have.”