Tribune-Herald sports writer
The University of Hawaii at Hilo women’s basketball team had to rally furiously to get there, but it’s a place it had been before and has usually thrived this season.
Ball in the air. Buzzer blaring. Game hanging in the balance.
Only this time, the would-be game-winning shot didn’t go in. Hawaii Pacific escaped with 62-61 victory Monday afternoon when Jameia McDuffie’s 3-pointer was short at UHH Gym.
That the Vulcans (11-10, 8-7 Pacific West Conference) were even in position to steal a victory seemed all but impossible only minutes earlier. With Mikela Thoemmes owning the glass, the taller Sea Warriors (15-6, 11-4) went ahead by double digits midway through the first half, and Ieva Nagy’s 3-pointer gave Hawaii Pacific its largest lead, 50-29, with 8:39 left to play.
“Give our players a lot of credit,” Vulcans coach David Kaneshiro said. “They showed a lot of heart and played hard.”
Sisters Kamie and Kirsty Imai and McDuffie helped spur the comeback. Kamie Imai, a junior, scored 10 of her 12 points in the final eight minutes and she gave her team its sole rebounding presence, grabbing 11. Senior guard Kirsty Imai and McDuffie each led the way with 17 points, eight apiece as UHH charged back.
UHH already has locked up a spot in the inaugural PacWest tournament, but now it has a nagging three-game losing streak to deal with as it gets set for its final three games of the regular season. Next up is Azusa Pacific on Saturday at home.
The Vulcans have room for error largely because of their clutch play midseason. UHH went 4-0 during a Bay Area road trip where seemingly every big shot went in, including two buzzer-beaters. That was part of a six-game winning streak, but UHH has come back down to earth since, losing four of five.
“It’s a long year,” Kaneshiro said. “There are going to be peaks and valleys. Even though we’ve lost the last three, when we’re playing like we’re capable of playing, I think we’re actually doing some things better than we the did on our Bay Area trip.”
Monday’s matinee was much cleaner than a 88-54 defeat against Hawaii Pacific in Honolulu, a loss that started the recent slump.
But Kamie Imai’s board work aside, Hawaii Pacific controlled the glass for a 55-28 rebounding edge. Thoemmes, a 5-foot-10 junior forward, grabbed 20 rebounds with 16 points and 5-10 junior forward Skye Savini also had 16 points while collecting nine rebounds.
Nagy and guard Melody Ladrido each finished with nine points.
Neither team performed well from field. Hawaii Pacific shot 35.5 percent, while UHH got hotter in the second half but finished at 34.9 percent.
Thoemmes nearly outrebounded UHH by herself during the first half, and Kaneshiro made a point of addressing the issue at halftime.
He said the Vulcans’ problem wasn’t just a lack of size.
“A lot of it started with transition defense,” Kaneshiro said. “We never could get back and get in our defense. I thought in the first half, they flat out had more energy than we did. In the first half, they got to a lot of the 50-50 balls.
“Give HPU a lot of credit,” Kaneshiro said. “They basically outplayed us on both ends of the floor for a lot of the game. We didn’t play with a lot of poise and we didn’t make good decisions. We picked it up in the second half.”
Kirsty Imai was seemingly just filling up the stat sheet when she hit two 3-pointers, she had four in the game, to get the deficit down to 12 with 4:45 left to play. But the Vulcans started extending their man defense to frustate Hawaii Pacific — which finished with 24 turnovers — and Natalie Mata made a 3-pointer and Kamie Imai hit three jumpers, that last of which capped a 12-1 run that brought UHH to within 60-59 with 2 minutes to play.
Mata missed another 3 that could have given UHH the lead, but after Savini hit a pair of free throws to put the Sea Warriors ahead by three, McDuffie answered with a jumper with nine seconds left.
UHH didn’t have a timeout to work with on its final sequence after a missed Hawaii Pacific free throw, but Kaneshiro said he liked what he saw as Kamie Imai drove through the lane and kicked it to McDuffie for an open look on the left baseline.
“We got an open shot and just missed it. It didn’t go down for us,” Kaneshiro said. “We’re certainly not satisfied with the results at this point in the season. There are no moral victories. We’re very disappointed in the result.
“In the last 8-10 minutes we showed a little bit more poise. We just need to build off that.”
Hawaii Pacific 36 26 —62
UHH 22 39—61