UH basketball tries to gobble up Thanksgiving victories in Las Vegas

Junior forward Kamaka Hepa scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists in a Thanksgiving Day victory over Illinois-Chicago in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy Brandon Flores)

Ahh, nothing like Thanksgiving Day: Turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce all ovah. Yams with marshmallows. Honey-glazed ham. Stuffing and mashed potatoes. Pumpkin pie.

Now top all of that off with an 88-80 University of Hawai’i men’s basketball victory over Illinois-Chicago in Las Vegas, and … What could be better?

Well, a next-day win over South Alabama would be a nice hana hou, for sure.

The Rainbow Warriors (3-1) will face the Jaguars (4-2) at 1 p.m. Hawai’i time on Black Friday for the Las Vegas Classic championship at The Orleans Arena. Now before you ask, “South Alabama?” just know that the Jaguars’ two losses were both close ones at Wichita State (64-58) and Alabama (73-68).

So this is a pretty good early season road test for UH, which could use another one before traveling to Santa Clara on Tuesday.

Senior center Mate Colina had game-highs of 23 points and seven rebounds and junior forward Kamaka Hepa added 19 points and six boards on Thursday to help the Rainbow Warriors hold off the Flames, who cut a 17-point deficit to 43-34 at halftime. Hawai’i then did not allow Illinois-Chicago to get closer than six points in the second half.

Senior forward Jerome Desrosiers finished with 16 points and six rebounds, senior point guard JoVon McClanahan added 10 points, six boards and four assists and senior guard Junior Madut contributed 10 points, three rebounds and four assists.

Freshman guard Amoro Lado played 16-plus minutes and provided eight points and two rebounds off the bench.

UH head coach Eran Ganot, who earned his 100th career victory at the school in the process, said earlier in the week that the team’s exact identity is still being defined.

“We’re still searching for it, but we’re closer,” Ganot said. “Three games in four days (at the Outrigger Rainbow Classic) will do that, and adversity will do that, too, if you handle it right. I’ve always said, we’ve got a great group of guys. I feel for them in some situations, with significant numbers down, but they’ve risen to the occasion. Everybody is part of the solution, guys are playing out of position, different positions. We’re looking at different things, different combinations, different styles. I think that will happen as the season goes along.

“The good thing for us is we have (this) tournament, and a big game just three or four days right after that. All this is about preparing us for conference play as we go through this journey.”

As far as a post-Thanksgiving feast hangover, don’t worry about that. The Rainbow Warriors actually celebrated the holiday together earlier in the week, as they do every Christmas when the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic is going on.

“We’re unique, because playing on Christmas Day, playing on Thanksgiving Day is not common for any team, but we’re used to playing on Christmas Day,” Ganot said. “We played on Thanksgiving Day when we were at the Wooden Legacy (Classic) in 2018 against Utah, and now more often than even when I started coaching, teams are playing on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day. We still try to (celebrate together), because this is a family program, we celebrate the holiday season. We just do it on different days, and do an abbreviated version on that day, because we’ve got game day routines, and things like that.

“We had a Thanksgiving kind of meal, already, we’ll have a Christmas meal together and celebrate that — that date is already planned prior to Christmas so we can focus on the games on those days. We’re somewhat experienced in that.”

The strategy certainly worked on Thursday, and gave them extra time to prepare for South Alabama, which edged San Diego, 68-67, in the earlier game.

And the victory also surely made for more pleasant off-time and team bonding, which was another big goal for this road trip.

“Honestly, I think just traveling as a team will bring us closer together,” said Desrosiers, a transfer from Princeton. “We’ve been together for the past few months, but traveling together and staying at a hotel and going out in Vegas will bring us together and we’ll find that identity even more.”

If that occurs, then the Rainbow Warriors will be hoping that what happened in Vegas will not just stay in Vegas.

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