By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
University of Hawaii at Hilo’s David Kaneshiro likes the way his feisty team is playing and believes it can make a run in this week’s inaugural Pacific West Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament.
The six-team tournament runs Thursday through Saturday in Azusa, Calif., which is about a 30-minute drive from Los Angeles.
“We’re really excited to be playing in the tournament,” said Kaneshiro, whose Vulcans finished fifth in the final PacWest regular season standings. “There is no dominant team in the tournament. Everybody is pretty even and all six teams played a lot of close games during the regular season.
“If we can play well and get a few breaks, I like our team’s chances.”
In first-round games Thursday, sixth-seeded BYUH (6-18 overall, 5-13 PacWest) battles third-seeded Academy of Art (20-8, 13-5) at 10:30 a.m. and fifth-seeded UHH (13-10, 10-7) takes on fourth-seeded Dixie State (14-12, 12-6) at 1 p.m. Top-seeded Hawaii Pacific University (18-6, 14-4) and second-seeded Grand Canyon (22-7, 14-4) draw first-round byes.
HPU earned the top seed as well as the regular-season title over Grand Canyon due to the league’s tiebreaker.
“Dixie State is a tall team, a good team,” Kaneshiro said. “But if we can play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, that’ll go a long ways. We’re going to need to rebound well against them, play good defense and limit their second shots, and shoot the ball like we’re capable of doing.
“All year we’ve had some trouble shooting the ball in the first half. But if we can focus on just playing one possession at a time and hit our shots, we should be in pretty good shape. All of us know it’s an elimination game, so I know we’ll play extremely hard and give it our best effort.”
The Vulcans are coming off a hard-earned 70-65 win over Brigham Young University-Hawaii last Saturday night at Laie. The visitors didn’t shoot well in the opening half and trailed 32-18 at the intermission. But in the second half, the Vulcans, sparked by hot-shooting senior Jameia McDuffie, shot over 60 percent and rallied to beat the stunned Seasiders.
McDuffie, a 5-foot-1 guard with mongoose quickness, had a game-high 21 points, including four 3-pointers. Senior forward Elise Spain had 14 points and senior Natalie Mata added 11.
“I thought we hit a lull in February and had some tough losses,” Kaneshiro said. “But the last two games, I could see the energy and enthusiasm was back and our girls were playing with a focus. I have a gutsy group of girls who’ll keep fighting and they want the season to continue as long as possible.”
The Vulcans are led by junior guard/forward Kamie Imai, who leads the squad in scoring (11.1 ppg), rebounding (7.4 rpg), assists (82) and blocked shots (22), and is second in steals (30). Sister Kirsty Imai (10.0 ppg, 36 treys) and fellow senior guards McDuffie (9.6 ppg, 19 treys, team-high 47 steals) and Kristen Shimizu (7.7 ppg, 29 treys) provide Kaneshiro with a productive backcourt trio while the versatile Mata (5.6 ppg) is one of the Vuls’ most explosive offensive players.
Spain (3.6 rpg, 2.5 ppg, 12 blocks), junior Jazzmyn Davis (6.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg), senior Jazlyn Afusia (4.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg) and Kamie Imai handle most of the rebounding chores, although the guards also pick up their small share. Senior Shannon Rousseau has been a valuable player, with 24 treys on the season, including a game-winner against Academy of Art University early in the regular season.
“Obviously both Dixie State and us have gotten better as the year has worn on,” Kaneshiro said. “But over the last few weeks, we’ve done a better job rebounding as well as moving the ball better on offense. On Thursday, we’re going to have to execute well and make shots.
“Our girls know how important each possession is — it could be the difference in who wins or loses. If we can just play sound fundamental basketball and do what we do well, we’ve got a chance to beat anyone in the tournament. Our girls are excited to play and confident in themselves.”
The Vulcans, with a 12-player roster, leave on the first Hawaiian Airlines’ flight this morning, headed to Honolulu. They’ll then head to Los Angeles, arriving in the mid-afternoon.
“We’ll get a chance to practice on Wednesday and then play Thursday,” Kaneshiro said.
The third-year UHH coach would like to see his team win the tournament and earn the PacWest’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Women’s National Championships. But regardless of what happens at Azusa Pacific, Kaneshiro will remain in California afterwards — to move on and play or to focus on recruiting.
“We lose eight players and we signed one in the fall,” the Vulcans coach said. “We’re looking to bring in four or five players. I think we’ve got a pretty good line on some players who we feel can fit into our program and contribute. We know the types of players we want and the type of players it takes to compete in the PacWest.
“We’ve had a pretty good season so far and hope to continue building on it this week, and then for next year.”
In the semifinals Friday, it’s Grand Canyon vs. the No. 6/No. 3 winner at 10:30 a.m., followed by HPU vs. the No. 4/No. 5 winner at 1 p.m. Saturday’s title game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
Hoop notes: The PacWest tournament champion earns the conference’s automatic berth in the women’s and men’s NCAA Division II national tournament. The PacWest men’s and women’s tournaments are being run concurrently this week at Azusa Pacific. … The top eight teams in the final West Region rankings will advance to the D-II national tournaments, and the fields will announced March 10.