With a postseason ban and scholarship reductions looming after this season, Hawaii's best shot at breaking a 14-year NCAA tournament drought appears to be now.
After Friday's semifinal win in the Big West tournament, the Rainbow Warriors are one game away from making that a reality.
A day after beating Cal State Fullerton by 31 points, top-seeded Hawaii picked up another victory at the Honda Center, this time over the fourth-seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, 88-76.
The Rainbow Warriors (26-5) had some sloppy moments — errant passes in the first half, and trouble breaking the press later on — but shot the ball well throughout, finishing at 52% from the floor, including nine of 21 on three-point attempts.
Hawaii got most of its contributions from three players. Big West player-of-the-year Stefan Jankovic put up a game-high 24 points, senior guard Roderick Bobbitt had 19 points, and guard Aaron Valdes added 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
"I'm very proud of our guys for battling through," Coach Eran Ganot said. "We came out of the gates really well for the second game in a row, these guys imposed their will defensively and on the glass in the second half."
UC Santa Barbara (18-13), which had won nine in a row before falling to Hawaii, kept it close in the first half with tight perimeter defense and a 57.7% shooting percentage. But the Gauchos were done in by a 21-3 run spanning seven minutes in the second half.
One point of concern for the Rainbow Warriors is the status of senior guard Quincy Smith, who left the game late in the first half with an undisclosed hip injury and did not return. With or without Smith, Hawaii — which received a bevy of penalties that start next season for NCAA violations committed under its former coach — will be playing in the Big West final for a second straight season.
"We're ready for the championship, this is what we've been waiting for all year," Jankovic said. "I think we're the only ones who believed we'd be back in this spot."
Long Beach State 77, UC Irvine 72: The last time second-seeded UC Irvine (25-9) and third-seeded Long Beach State (20-13) faced off, the Anteaters won by 23. Two and a half weeks later, the 49ers got their revenge.
Six 49ers finished in double figures, including 17 points for guard Justin Bibbins, 15 for guard Nick Faust and 13 for guard A.J. Spencer. Faust's production was perhaps the most important, with the majority of his points coming in the latter stages of the game.
UC Irvine put itself in an unsavory position by getting into foul trouble. Guard Luke Nelson, who scored 36 points in the quarterfinals, picked up two fouls in the first 10 minutes of Friday's game. Junior big man Mamadou Ndiaye quickly followed suit, and only logged five minutes in the first half. Six Anteaters went into the break with at least two fouls. Long Beach State built a nine-point halftime advantage despite shooting eight of 25 thanks to making 21 of 24 free throws.
UC Irvine avoided unnecessary fouls in the second half and gradually made its way back. Ndiaye played almost the entirety of the final 20 minutes, as did Nelson (five points on two-of-seven shooting). The Anteaters retook the lead with 6:48 left on a layup by forward Mike Best, but gave it up on the next possession, and Long Beach State was able to hold on from there.
In the women's semifinals:
UC Davis 81, UC Riverside 72: The fourth-seeded Aggies (19-12) dealt the top-seeded Highlanders (23-8) their first loss against a conference opponent this season. UC Davis outscored UC Riverside by 14 points in the fourth quarter, connecting on eight straight shots in the closing minutes. UC Riverside's late-game collapse could be attributed to fatigue, the Highlanders were down to seven healthy players, four of whom played at least 36 minutes. The Aggies were led by forward Alyson Doherty, who had 21 points and 11 rebounds.