By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s basketball head coach Jeff Law doesn’t like to lose at anything, but if his hustling team can take a tough loss and learn from it, he’ll grit his teeth and move on.
On Wednesday night, the Vulcans dropped a 67-61 slippery encounter to Montana State University-Billings before about 450 fans at UHH Gym to close out the three-day Naniloa Volcanoes Resort’s Thanksgiving Tournament. In the earlier game, Maryville (Mo.) fought past Western New Mexico University 70-58.
The Yellowjackets (4-1 overall) finished the four-team event with a 3-0 record, followed by Maryville at 2-1, Western New Mexico University 1-2 and UHH 0-3.
But Wednesday’s battle with MSUB, under feisty head coach Jamie Stevens, was a struggle for the Vulcans — and despite 27 turnovers, poor second half free-throw shooting (14 for 30) and only four assists in 40 minutes, the hosts dug deep in the final minutes and made a late run, pulling to within 64-61 on Mychael Hearn’s follow-up shot with :21 left.
But senior guard David Arnold sank the second of two free throws with :20 remaining to give the visitors a 65-61 advantage. And then after Hearn missed a long 3-point attempt at :08, Omar McDade broke loose for an uncontested layup to close scoring as the Yellowjackets posted the 67-61 victory.
MSUB had led by 17 points — at 61-44 — with 5:20 left before UHH (1-4 overall) battled back and sliced the Yellowjackets’ cushion to 61-51 on Derek Owens’ 3-pointer at the 3:26 mark. Hearn (4 points), CJ Brown (3), Robert Looper (2) and Michael Melonas (a free throw) fueled a final rally that at least gave the Vulcans a chance to catch the visitors in the waning seconds.
However, Arnold’s free throw at :20 spoiled the fun and Stevens’ unselfish squad chalked up the win to cap a perfect record in the tournament.
It was a tough loss to swallow when you consider the high turnover number and 16 missed free throws — UHH was 21 of 37 on the night. But Law took it in stride and credited his young team for fighting back after the Yellowjackets threatened to blow the game open midway through the second half.
“I thought our guys showed a lot of grit, battling back from a 17-point deficit to make it a one-possession game in the last minute,” the veteran UHH coach said. “Of course, I’m not happy about the 21 turnovers and the poor free-throw shooting, but I thought our guys showed a lot of heart.
“I like our guys, they’re a good group and I believe they’re going to get better. They work really hard and want to be good. Now, it’s just a matter of keep plugging away and clean up some of those things that have hurt us so far.”
Cameron Cusworth, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, scored a game-high 19 points to lead the Yellowjackets. He hit 8 of 12 field goals, including 3 of 7 3-pointers. Jarrell Crayton, a 6-7 senior, had 14 points and Arnold 12, including a pair of treys.
Brown, a 6-1 senior from Sacramento, Calif., led the Vulcans with 15 points. He made 3 of 6 field goals and 9 of 11 free throws. Melonas, a 6-6 257-pound power forward, had 14 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. Sophomore Robert Looper and junior Brandon Thomas each added seven points while the 6-1 Hearn had six points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
MSUB shot 42 percent (26 of 62) from the floor, 24 percent (7 of 29) on 3-pointers and 53 percent (8 of 15) from the free-throw line. UHH hit 41 percent (19 of 46) from the field, 18 percent (2 of 11) on treys and 57 percent (21 of 37) from the line.
The Yellowjackets also had 35 rebounds, 12 assists, 20 turnovers, 1 blocked shot and 8 steals compared to the Vulcans’ 39, 4, 27, 0 and 7, respectively. Junior point guard Kalob Hatcher led MSUB with a game-high nine assists.
For the second straight night, the floor was extremely slippery and the Vulcans turned the ball over seven or eight times in the first half due to the wet stuff. The hosts had a hard-to-believe opening 20 minutes with 19 turnovers and zero assists.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before with so many turnovers and no assists,” Law said. “But for us, we just want to find ourselves and keep getting better for the conference. This year, the top six teams advance to the conference tournament and in that situation, anything can happen as long as you get into the tournament. That’s what we’re shooting for, to get into the tournament in the end and hopefully be playing well at that time. That’s why they call it March Madness — anything can happen.”
The Vulcans next open Pacific West Conference play on the road with games at Dixie State on Dec. 1 and Grand Canyon University on Dec. 3. They then return home and host nonconference foes Urbana University (Ohio) on Dec. 14 and Saint Edward’s University on Dec. 19 at UHH Gym.
MSUB 25 42 — 67
UHH 22 39 — 61
• Maryville (Mo.) 70, Western New Mexico University 58: Gerald Shaw scored 16 points, Armon Provo 13 and Asa Toney 11 to lead the Saints from St. Louis to a rock solid win over the Mustangs.
Senior Chad Carter led WNMU (1-4) with 15 points while Lucio Luttrell and Daryl Littleton each added 10.
Maryville (4-1) led 39-31 at the intermission before outscoring the Mark Coleman-coached Mustangs 31-27 in the second half.
Maryville 39 31 — 70
WNMU 31 27 — 58