By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
As Western New Mexico University’s Mark Coleman stood outside his locker room, a light Hilo drizzle dampened the ground nearby and the veteran Mustangs head coach took it all in for a last time.
The hustling Mustangs had just beaten the University of Hawaii at Hilo 61-60 on a last-second shot by senior Chad Carter in the second day of the Naniloa Volcanoes Thanksgiving Basketball Tournament at UHH Gym. In the opener, Montana State-Billings edged Maryville University (Mo.) 54-50.
The round-robin event wraps up today with WNMU (1-3) taking on Maryville (3-1) at 5 p.m., followed by Montana State-Billings (3-1) vs. UHH (1-3) at 7:30 p.m.
With the bang-bang finish in the Mustangs’ win over the Vulcans, a whirlwind of emotions stirred inside Coleman.
“This is a special one,” said Coleman as his eyes became glassy and his 5-year-old son Kona celebrated to his right. “It’s tough beating my closest friend, the godfather of my son and the best man at my wedding — Jeff Law.
“For 40 minutes we battle to beat each other’s brains out and after it’s over, we’re still best friends. And with this being my last time coaching in Hilo, it’s a special win for a lot of reasons.”
Coleman is the full-time athletic director and men’s basketball head coach at WNMU in Silver City, N.M., and he’ll step down as the basketball coach at the end of this season. He’ll continue on as the AD, but Tuesday’s game closed the chapter on a coaching duel between Coleman and best buddy Law that has spanned over 18 years, including Coleman’s coaching stints at first Drew University and then at WNMU.
“This is only my third win against Jeff to go with a lot of losses,” Coleman said. “But this win is so special because of the overall circumstances and how my wife, Jenny, and I feel about Hawaii — and especially the Big Island.
“We were married in Kona and named our son that name. We’ve come here to play against Jeff a lot of times and I truly love the Hilo people. They’re really special and we consider Hilo our second home. And I know if our new basketball coach decides to come to Hilo to play, I’m going to be the first one on the plane to come back here.”
The last battle between Coleman and Law was intense with both teams fighting for every loose ball or rebound and contesting one another defensively throughout the 40-minute contest. Adding to the struggle was a slippery court — caused from the mist of the Hilo rain.
The Mustangs jumped to an early lead before UHH rallied behind the play off the bench of senior Paul Batausa, junior Derek Owens and sophomore Robert Looper to carry a 33-31 lead into the intermission. And the teams exchanged body blows through the final 20 minutes — in which it was tied at 56-56 on Owens’ 3-pointer at the 5:11 mark and there were five lead changes in the last 4:28.
Carter, a 6-foot-6 forward from Tucson, Ariz., and returning all-conference player, had picked up four fouls midway through the second half and headed to the bench. But Coleman opted to sub Carter back in at prime time and the slender senior with the soft shooting touch answered with a 15-foot jumper with 2 minutes left to lift WNMU on top 59-58.
Then after each team turned the ball over twice, the Vulcans called time out with about 20 seconds left to set up a quality possession. Owens, a point guard from Tempe, Ariz., was fouled with 10 seconds left and missed both free throws. However, on his second miss, junior Brandon Thomas grabbed the offensive rebound and banked in the follow-up shot to give UHH a 60-59 advantage.
The Vulcans were not in the free-throw penalty and they fouled the Mustangs on two successive possessions before WNMU called timeout with 4 seconds remaining. Coleman ordered his team to run the play “BC” and Carter got open and drilled the go-ahead basket from 15 feet out to give the Mustangs a 61-60 lead with 0.8 left on the clock.
Law burnt his final time out and Batausa, a 5-8 guard from Ventura, Calif., caught the inbounds pass and launched a 55-footer at the buzzer that fell short.
“That was the play we wanted and the guy (Carter) we wanted shooting the ball,” Coleman said. “He’s a senior co-captain and a returning all-conference player. He knew he hadn’t played very well in the game, but he’s the guy we need to step up with leadership and he got it done.”
Following the game and long after the Vulcan fans had headed home, Carter stood under the UHH scoreboard and used his cell phone to snap a photo of the final score.
“It’s my first game-winner,” the soft-spoken Carter said. “When it left my hand, I knew it was good. And I’m glad it did because I was feeling pretty bad because I didn’t block out on that other play and the (UHH) guy scored over me.”
Coleman called it an important win for his team, showing the Mustangs could finish off a close contest with a victory.
“We also learned tonight that we don’t need our starters to win, we need everyone to win,” he said. “This win on the road should help us later on in the season when we’re in conference and in any tough game. If we can stick together as a team, we’ve got a chance.”
Lucio Luttrell, a 6-3 guard, led WNMU with 12 points, including two 3-pointers. Carter had 10 points and Merle Branch, a 6-3 forward, added nine points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Batausa led UHH with 10 points, including 3 of 4 3-pointers. Senior Michael Melonas, junior Lucas Swanson and Looper, a 6-7, 230-pound power forward, each added nine points. Thomas chipped in with eight points; senior Kiel Myers, seven points and three rebounds; and senior guard CJ Brown, five points and five assists.
Law, in his 15th year at UHH, was disappointed in the loss.
“We didn’t come out ready to play and turned the ball over five times to start off,” he said. “We ended up with 21 turnovers and missed a lot of free throws — and Western New Mexico wasn’t defending us at the free-throw line.”
The Vulcans coach also pointed to a missing link that could be a key to a successful or roller coaster-like season. “We need leadership,” he said. “Paul (Batausa) is the only guy willing to step up, but we also need CJ (Brown) and Derek (Owens) to step up.”
The Vulcans shot just 55 percent (16 of 29) from the free-throw line while WNMU nailed 7 of 11 attempts from the charity stripe. The shorter Mustangs also outrebounded the hosts 41-40 and had 9 steals and 3 blocks compared to UHH’s 0 and 7, respectively.
“We tried to get the ball to our big guys tonight and they just didn’t finish,” Law said. “If we’re going to get better as a team and win some games, we’ve got to get a lot tougher inside and be able to finish.”
WNMU shot 39 percent (25 of 64) from the field and 18 percent (4 of 22) from 3-point range. UHH hit 36 percent (19 of 53) from the floor and 38 percent (6 of 16) on treys.
The Mustangs also had 10 assists and 20 turnovers while the Vulcans had 15 and 21, respectively. Senior guard Juan Suarez had a game-high 7 assists.
WNMU 31 30 — 61
UHH 33 27 — 60
• Montana State-Billings 54, Maryville 50: Senior Jarrell Crayton scored 25 points, including two clutch free throws to ice the game with 4 seconds left, to lead the Yellowjackets to a hard-fought win. Senior David Arnold added 14 points.
Junior Asa Toney led the Saints with 13 points and senior Gerald Shaw had 11.
Maryville 23 27 — 50
MS-Billings 20 34 — 54