(Hawaii Athletics) - The University of Hawai'i men's basketball team was on the verge of a Big West Tournament quarterfinal win before UC Irvine snatched it away in a 68-67 loss Thursday night at the Honda Center.
Max Hazzard's jumper with 5.5 seconds left proved the game-winner as the Anteaters (17-16) rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes to bounce Hawai'i (17-13) from the quarterfinals for the second straight year. It marked the third time in six Big West Tournament appearances that UH was ousted by UC Irvine as the Anteaters advanced to the semifinals for the seventh straight year.
UH lost despite huge performances from its two seniors, Gibson Johnson and Mike Thomas. Johnson scored a career-high 23 points, including a three-point play with 14 seconds left to put UH up, 67-66. The 6-8 forward scored 18 second-half points and finished 8-of-10 from the floor.
Thomas meanwhile scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half to help UH stake a three-point halftime lead. The 6-7 forward also added a game-high seven rebounds, two assists, a block, and steal in perhaps his last game as a Rainbow Warrior.
Evan Leonard led three Anteaters in double-figures with 24 points. The sophomore scored all but seven of those points after the break to help UCI rally for the win.
The first half was a defensive battle, with UCI shooting just 37 percent and UH just 35 percent. But UH took a 29-26, lead into the locker room on the strength of steady ball-handling (just three turnovers) and pesky defense (six steals, eight UCI turnovers).
The second half started with a much more furious pace offensively. UH ended up shooting 56 percent in the final 20 minutes against the stingiest team in the conference. The 'Bows crisp offensive execution allowed them to build a double-digit lead, twice, including a 62-52, lead on a Thomas dunk with 4:08 left.
However, the Eaters, sparked by an aggressive offense and pressure defense, ended the game on a 16-5 run. The final 67 seconds saw the lead change three times. A Leonard layup gave the Anteaters their first lead of the half at the 1:07 mark. After Johnson' three-point play, and Hazzard's ensuing bucket, UH had one final possession with 5.5 seconds. Brocke Stepteau took the ball the length of the court, but his short-range shot from inside the paint came up short.