By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Since returning from holiday break, the University of Hawaii at Hilo has focused its attention on basketball staples such as defense, rebounding and its transition game.
Not that she seemed to mind, but the Lady Vulcans also have done their fair share of running, according to guard Kirsty Imai.
“I don’t really now why we’re running (so much),” she said with a laugh as she tilted her head in the direction of coach David Kaneshiro.
“If they made some free throws they wouldn’t have had half the running that they’ve actually had to do,” he said. “We’ve missed our fair share since we’ve been back.”
Enough with practices, though; it’s time to play again. The Vulcans (3-5, 0-2 Pacific West Conference) return from a 16-day layoff at 5 p.m. today to start one of their busiest home stretches of the season with a golden opportunity to gain some ground. Riding an eight-game losing streak, Notre Dame de Namur (1-9, 0-2) is the first of three opponents to visit UHH Gym in the next five days. None has a winning record.
Inconsistency and lack of execution hampered the senior-laded Vuls in 2012, but the new year brings a chance to hit the reset button.
“I think as a coach you always kind of worry about that first game after the break. The past two seasons after the break we were sluggish, so we’d like to avoid that,” said Kaneshiro, who is in his third season. “We still like the potential of this team. We still control a lot of things.”
Among those is a postseason push, which is all the more important to Imai and her seven fellow UHH seniors. The top six teams will qualify for the inaugural PacWest tournament.
“We want to at least make it to the playoffs if not farther,” she said. “Overall, we’re sticking together and have that same goal and same mindset. Just that sense of urgency to win.”
Her final season with the Vuls is also her first since being reunited on the court with her sister Kamie. Kirsty Imai called her younger sister’s transfer a “blessing,” especially since playing together again wasn’t a likely scenario when they left Waiakea High School.
Both took circuitous routes to move up the street to play for the Vuls.
Kamie Imai graduated in 2010 as a two-time Big Island Interscholastic Federation Player of Year and left for a scholarship at Division I Utah State.
Initially happy to bolt the island, her transition back home has been much easier because she already knew all of her UHH teammates on the first day of practice through her sister.
“It’s different but good,” Kamie Imai said of dropping down a level of play. “It’s an adjustment, but it’s been smooth.”
That’s been evident in her play. At 5-foot-9, the junior forward doesn’t play point guard but she often fills that role, leading the team in scoring (13.0 points per game), rebounding (5.9) and assists (3.3). For good measure, she’s second in steals.
The transfer was a windfall for Kaneshiro, and there were no headaches attached.
“You never know when you have D-I transfer,” he said. “Sometimes they come in and think they’re better than everybody else. That certainly hasn’t been the case. She’s come in with a good attitude and works hard.”
Meanwhile, Kirsty Imai’s sport of choice — and her best, she says — at Waiakea was softball, but when she graduated in 2008 she wasn’t planning on playing any sport at UHH. A conversation with her father changed her mind, though.
“My dad pushed me to try,” she said. “When I made the team, I was like ‘Oh, I have to play.”’
Imai landed a scholarship during her sophomore season, and she’s been a starter the past two. She’s fourth on the team in scoring (7.3 points per game), playing in the backcourt along with point guards Kirtsen Shimizu and Jameia McDuffie (10.3).
If Imai had her way, she’d also play softball in the spring, but there’s a long overlap, and it’s basketball that pays the school bills.
“I’ve just dedicated my time here,” she said.
The Argonauts come in off the same lengthy layoff as the Vuls, starting a three-game Hawaii road trip. They don’t have a scorer averaging in double figures. Trisha Malaspina, a 6-0 center, leads the way, averaging 7.6 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Dominican (2-8, 1-1) and Holy Names (5-5, 1-2) visit next with 5 p.m. games on Saturday and Monday.
The UHH men (2-8, 0-2) follow all three days at 7:30 p.m. The Vulcans ended an eight-game losing streak with a 116-54 victory against Champion Baptist last Saturday in which Mike Melonas, a 6-7 forward and the reigning league Player of the Week, scored 26 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, and senior guard Mychael Hearn had a career-high 29 points.
Wesley White, a 6-7 forward/center, leads the Argonauts (2-8, 1-1) in scoring (10.9) and rebounding (7.6).