Bittersweet week for Coach Taylor, ‘Bows

There was good news and bad news in Manoa this week as the Rainbow Warriors men’s basketball team opened its conference schedule Wednesday night. A successful start has earned the program some national recognition, but the same immediate success wasn’t captured in Big West play.

Before we get to the on-court news, acting head coach Benjy Taylor was recognized on Monday for the team’s hot start. Taylor was named as mid-season recipient of the Hugh Durham Award, which is given to the top mid-major coach in the country.

I’ve been skeptical about how much the rest of the nation was paying attention to the ‘Bows and Taylor’s quick start amid the tough circumstances they were presented with just before the season. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn of this award. Coach Taylor got the team off to a 12-4 start, including wins over Pittsburgh, Nebraska and Colorado, plus a one-point overtime loss to Wichita State.

Hugh Durham, the award’s namesake, was head coach for Florida State, Georgia and Jacksonville. He took both Florida State (1972) and Georgia (1983) to the Final Four. Those were the only seasons either program has ever gotten to the Final Four.

The Hugh Durham Award for the full season will be presented on April 3.

In the wake of that news, Hawaii took on Cal Poly at the Stan Sheriff Center on Wednesday. The visiting Mustangs reached the NCAA Tournament last season after winning the Big West Tournament. They entered with a 7-5 record but got the best of the favored ‘Bows. At least the home crowd was treated to some free hoops as the two clubs took the contest to overtime.

Hawaii looked a little more like its 2014 version, getting off to a slow start before fighting back late. Cal Poly held a seven-point halftime edge as UH shot just 6 for 25 from the field in the first 20 minutes. Things looked a bit better in the second half thanks to Aaron Valdes, who scored 13 of his team-high 20 points in the second stanza. Valdes knocked down all four of his shot attempts, including three from downtown.

Having trailed by as many as nine in the second half, UH stormed back to take a 47-42 lead with just over five minutes remaining. But Cal Poly responded with a 7-0 run of its own and the two teams traded buckets down the stretch. Brian Bennett tied things up for the Mustangs at 51-51 with 1:16 to play and neither squad would score again, leading to the extra frame.

Point guard Roderick Bobbitt had a layup with 35 seconds left in OT to give Hawaii a 57-56 lead, but Reese Morgan nailed a 3-pointer on the other end with only seven seconds on the game clock and Cal Poly added a pair of free throws for a 61-57 win.

Bennett had 20 points to lead the Mustangs. Morgan added 17.

The ‘Bows played without shooting guard Garrett Nevels, who had surgery last week to repair a ligament in his right hand. The team struggled to score in his absence with just Valdes reaching double figures. Bobbitt had eight points and six assists, while Negus Webster-Chan had eight points and six rebounds.

Hawaii shot just 18 for 55 (32.7 percent) for the game. As a smaller team, the Bows were once again outrebounded (46-36) and had trouble in the paint with 6-foot-7 Mike Thomas in foul trouble most of the night.

Despite the loss, Hawaii (12-5, 0-1 Big West) has a chance to turn things around quickly. The ‘Bows will take on struggling Cal State Northridge (4-12, 0-1 Big West) on Saturday night in Honolulu. The Matadors lost their conference opener on Wednesday to UC Davis, 71-61.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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