By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
As fans walked out of UHH Gym on Wednesday night, many talked about the early season excitement of the young University of Hawaii Hilo men’s basketball team.
Sure, the Vulcans had just dropped a 76-75 contest to Northern New Mexico College and finished 1-2 in the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort’s Basketball Tournament. But they showed strong signs of developing into a solid squad and one that might surprise some opponents in the upcoming Pacific West Conference season.
First-year UHH coach GE Coleman saw his Vuls (4-3) start slow and fall behind the hustling Eagles (6-3) by 10 points, then slice the visitors’ lead to 36-34 at the intermission.
And when the Vulcans seemed to tire midway through the second half, NNMC built a double-digit lead again and appeared on its way to a convincing victory.
However, the Vulcans, who press full court and use a high-octane, share-the-ball attack this year, rallied and tied the game in the final minute before the Eagles made a couple of late free throws to pull out the thrilling win.
Coleman shook his head when asked if the Vulcans’ open-throttle style through the three-day tournament finally caught up with them against NNMC.
“No, we’ve got to be able to play three straight nights like this if we want to be a successful team,” he said. “We’ve got to be more mentally tough in these situations. Tonight we didn’t bring the type of energy we need to beat quality teams.”
The Eagles finished the tournament with a 2-1 record, including an overtime win over 18th-ranked Fort Lewis College. But they had their hands full and legs tested against the fast-paced Vulcans, who pushed all three teams they played in the tourney at UHH.
And there were signs of improvement each game, with Coleman playing up to 10 players in his defensive-minded scheme at one end, and pushing the ball in transition when they went the other way.
Against NNMC, Coleman pointed to not blocking off well enough on the boards — the Eagles outrebounded the hosts 46-35 — and not taking advantage of the breaks.
“Tonight, we didn’t get the 50-50 balls, the hustle points, when we needed them,” he said. “But hopefully we can learn from these games and continue to improve.”
Rodney Coles, a 5-foot-8 junior guard was the biggest thorn in UHH’s side. He scored a team-high 13 points, including 9 of 11 from the free-throw line. His final two makes provided the Eagles with their winning margin.
AJ Peralta, a 6-7 senior, had 12 points and a game-high 10 rebounds while teammate Daniel Chatchou added 12 points.
Junior guard Darnell Williams, from Hilltop, Wash., led UHH with a game-high 21 points. He made 9 of 18 field goals, 1 of 5 treys, and 2 of 3 free throws. Junior Joey Rodriguez, out of College of Marin in Northern California, followed with 15 points off the bench, including a pair of 3-pointers. Junior Yevgenjy Dyachenko, a transfer from Yuba College in California, added nine points on 3 of 5 3-pointers.
The Eagles shot 50 percent (28 of 56) from the field, 31 percent (4 of 13) on 3-pointers and 62 percent (16 of 26) from the free-throw line. The Vulcans hit 39 percent (28 of 72) from the floor, 23 percent (6 of 26) on treys, and 65 percent (13 of 20) from the line.
NNMC also had 7 assists, 20 turnovers, 2 blocked shot and 3 steals compared to UHH’s 12, 9, 0 and 7, respectively.
“We had a good effort,” Coleman said. “We just need to tighten up on some of the little things that are going to make us a better team.”
Still, despite the 1-2 tournament record, Vulcan fans seemed pleased with Coleman’s first edition — a disciplined squad that plays hard for 40 minutes and doesn’t produce the on-court drama that was a big part of coach Jeff Law’s team the last two seasons. The Vulcans only won a combined seven games in the PacWest in those two years.
Law left UHH at the end of last season to become the head coach at Western New Mexico University. Coleman was hired as the Vulcans coach on July 1 and has combined five returnees with 10 recruits for this year’s team.
The Vulcans next play at BYU-Hawaii on Saturday to open conference play.
NNMC 36 40 — 76
UHH 34 41 — 75
In the earlier game Wednesday, Tiffin University of Ohio fought past Fort Lewis College 102-92 in double overtime — the third OT contest in the tournament.
Senior guard Joe Graessle poured in a game-high 35 points, including 4 of 9 treys, to lead the Dragons (4-1, 2-1 tourney). Khaleal McCormick followed with 18 points while Nick Ellison had 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Senior Nick Tomsick (4 treys) and junior Alex Herrera each had 22 points for the nationally ranked Skyhawks ((3-2, 1-2).
FLC 42 39 6 5 — 92
Tiffin 39 42 6 15 — 102