Hawaii’s first NCAA tournament win was not a Hail Mary affair in which an outmanned and undertalented team’s 3-point prayers and acrobatic layups happened to hit home just long enough to upset a team that could win the next 10 rematches with ease.
Hawaii was simply a better team than California. The Rainbow Warriors were much, much better than the embattled, injured Golden Bears, who limped to a 77-66 first-round NCAA tournament exit at the Arena on Friday.
While the Golden Bears (23-11) have more players who will earn NBA money, Hawaii (28-5) gave up nothing in terms of actual on-court skill. The Rainbow Warriors have nearly 30 wins thanks to talented players such as Big West Conference player of the Year Stefan Jankovic, who scored 16 points, and Quincy Smith, whose deft runners off the glass kept Cal at arm’s length in the second half.
The Rainbow Warriors, who travel more than any other team in the country out of obvious necessity, set a school record for wins on Friday, adding to the program’s list of firsts under first-year head coach Eran Ganot.
“What a moment,” Ganot said. “Just in a year of moments these guys just find a way to provide us with more.”
Hawaii had some help, of course. Cal’s loss ends what can surely be argued is the most trying week in the program’s history. The Golden Bears earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament this week, their highest.
They also had to fire an assistant coach who has admitted to sexually harassing a female reporter; learned that head coach Cuonzo Martin may have mishandled that situation, putting his job status in jeopardy; and lost their best player, Tyrone Wallace, to a broken hand sustained in Wednesday’s practice.
Just moments before tipoff Jabari Bird, the team’s hottest player in recent weeks, suffered back spasms and was unable to play.
“You lose a guy that shoots it the way he shoots it, it changes the game for you,” Martin said. “It was one thing to have Tyrone out, but we expected that, because he was injured. But two minutes before a game start time, it’s tough.”
Jordan Mathews stepped up admirably, hitting 9 of 15 shots to score 23 points. But freshman Jaylen Brown continued to struggle, fouling out and turning the ball over seven times and making just one shot.
The Rainbow Warriors will try to double their all-time number of NCAA tournament wins on Sunday at the Arena.
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