Hawaii holds on to beat Long Beach State in Big West final
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Hawaii had a very limited window to make the NCAA Tournament.
With NCAA sanctions about to take effect that ban them from the 2016-17 postseason, the Rainbow Warriors' last chance at March Madness for the foreseeable future was Saturday night. Hawaii made the most of its opportunity.
Aaron Valdes scored 14 points, Stefan Jankovic scored all 10 of his points in the second half, and the top-seeded Rainbow Warriors hung on late to beat No. 3-seed Long Beach State 64-60 in the Big West Conference Tournament championship game.
The Rainbow Warriors (27-5) earned an automatic bid to their fifth NCAA Tournament and first since 2002.
''This is huge for us. Honestly, we deserve this,'' Jankovic said. ''With all the infractions and everything we've been through, we told ourselves this year we were going to go all the way. We're a tough group.''
Hawaii was sanctioned for infractions committed under former coach Gib Arnold. Its penalties include a 2016-17 postseason ban, scholarship reductions, and players allowed to transfer without having to sit out a year.
Despite those sanctions and a third coach in three years at the helm, the Rainbow Warriors rolled to a conference co-championship in the regular season before claiming the conference tournament title.
''We all could've quit, gone to other places, but we stuck together and stuck it out,'' said Valdes, who was named tournament MVP. ''It means a lot after all we've been through together.''
Their resilience showed in the title game.
Hawaii blew a 12-point, second-half lead and was tied at 58, but Jankovic hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:45 to go and the Rainbow Warriors made it stand up.
Justin Bibbins missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer for the 49ers (20-14) with 5 seconds to go, and Noah Blackwell and A.J. Spencer missed potential go-ahead 3s in the final 90 seconds as well.
''I liked our opportunities,'' Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. ''I have no regrets from Bibbins' look at all. He's our best 3-point shooter and I would take him for a shot to go to the tournament every time.''
The 49ers finished 5 for 22 from 3-point range.
Nick Faust scored 17 points before fouling out and Bibbins and Travis Hammonds each scored 12 to lead Long Beach State.
Hawaii held its largest lead, 44-32, with 13:25, but Long Beach State erased it and tied the score at 56 on Faust's 3-pointer with 3:54 to go.
Faust fouled out with 3:27 left, though, and the 49ers were without their leading scorer down the stretch.
Jankovic took advantage and swung the momentum back Hawaii's way with his 3-pointer to make it 61-58, and that was enough to keep the Rainbow Warriors in front in the final breathless minutes.
It was Hawaii's first win in three games against Long Beach State this season.
''The difference this time was our composure,'' Rainbow Warriors coach Eran Ganot said. ''When we needed people to step up, they did.''
Hawaii's championship win followed a victory by its women's team in its final earlier in the day.
This year will mark the second time both the Hawaii men's and women's teams made it to the NCAA Tournament in the same season. It previously occurred in 1994.
It also marked only the fourth time in Big West history the same school produced the men's and women's tournament champion in the same year.
Bibbins and Faust were named to the all-tournament team for Long Beach State. Jankovic joined MVP Valdes on the first team for Hawaii, and UC Irvine guard Luke Nelson and UC Santa Barbara guard Michael Bryson rounded out the team.
Long Beach State: Hammonds also fouled out with 1:06 remaining. ... The 49ers only led for 6:49 of the game and never led in the second half. ... They dropped to 5-6 all-time in Big West Tournament championship games.
Hawaii: The Rainbow Warriors won the rebounding battle 35-30. They are 23-0 when winning the rebounding battle this season. ... Jankovic, the conference Player of the Year, played only seven minutes of the first half because of foul trouble. ... They tied the school record for wins in a season.
Long Beach State: Awaits a possible postseason bid.
Hawaii: Finds out its NCAA Tournament seed Sunday.