Rainbow Wahine have a winning formula — and it’s sustainable

While most of the focus has been on the turbulent but fascinating season that the men’s squad has been having, the Hawaii Rainbow Wahine basketball team is putting together what could be the program’s best year since 2001-02, which resulted in a 23-8 record and an NIT berth. I’m as guilty as anyone of keeping my eyes towards the men’s schedule, but the women are forcing us to turn our attention in their direction.

Winners of seven straight games entering Thursday night’s contest at UC Riverside (results unavailable as of press time), the Wahine sat at 15-7 overall and 7-2 in the Big West, good for sole possession of first place. Since winning at least 20 games for the third straight year in that 2001-02 campaign, no Wahine team has totaled more than 18 wins in a season. This group is quickly approaching those figures and still has a lot of basketball left to play.

Per the UH athletic department, the last time the Wahine held sole possession of first place in their conference was the final eight weeks of the 1997-98 season when they won the Western Athletic Conference title and earned their most recent NCAA Tournament berth. The program has been building toward this for the past few years under coach Laura Beeman, but exactly how have they been doing it?

Well, pretty dominantly, actually. The seven straight wins have come by an average of 15 points apiece. That includes a 35-point win over UC Irvine and its three most recent victories all by at least 15. While it’s cliché and coach speak, the team is doing it with defense. They’re allowing only 56 points per game during conference play, best in the Big West, and conference opponents are shooting just 38 percent from the field against UH.

The second priority has been rebounding. The team’s plus-7.2 rebound margin is best in the Big West and ranks 34th nationally. That’s been a collective effort as seven different Wahine are pulling down at least 4.0 rebounds per contest. Destiny King leads the group with 6.5 a night.

I’ve been told by many basketball coaches that if you defend and rebound, any coach will have a spot for you. Coach Beeman must be in heaven with this team because she has a full lineup of players willing to do the dirty work.

Without a ton of offensive firepower of their own, those are necessary traits for the Wahine to remain successful. It’s been a very balanced offense to this point with the team’s top four scorers all averaging between 9.4 and 12.3 points per contest. They grind you down and share the ball extremely well. Forwards Shawna-Lei Kuehu and King are skilled passers, which has helped the team even out that scoring load.

What they don’t do is shoot the three-ball. Hawaii is averaging just 3.5 made three-pointers per game and is only shooting 27 percent from beyond the arc. While that can be seen as a negative, it bodes very well for both teams’ style of play and its chances of maintaining this most recent win streak. Sometimes a team gets hot and reels off a few Ws because one or two players are lights out from the outside. But the Wahine don’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop or for any sort of offensive regression to be rapidly approaching.

Defense and rebounding. It sounds so simple, but it’s so difficult to master. While most of the highlights and attention are placed on other facets of the game, those two consistently win out in the victory column. The Wahine have emphasized and dominated those categories recently. If they can maintain those priorities, this promises to be the best UH Wahine team in quite some time.

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

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