WAILUKU - The first words Gib Arnold said post-game summed up this night pretty well.
"First off, I thought the crowd was great, we want to really thank the people of Maui," the University of Hawaii men's basketball coach said in a dark hallway next to the tiny locker room his team used at War Memorial Gym for their 65-57 win over North Carolina A&T on Sunday night. "We are definitely coming back, that was a lot of fun."
The Rainbow Warriors are now 2-0 under Arnold on Maui, although this one was a lot tougher than a 29-point win over Chicago State last season at the Lahaina Civic Center. Arnold said the near-capacity crowd of 1,412 helped the 'Bows pull out the win.
Hawaii forward Joston Thomas is fouled by North Carolina A&T’s Kam Shepherd in the first quarter Sunday at War Memorial Gym.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"It was a good atmosphere, I could barely hear myself in some of the huddles and they helped us out," Arnold said. "That feels good to be appreciated from some fans who normally don't get to see us. It wasn't the prettiest of all games, but they got to see their team and we played pretty hard."
It was a struggle all night for Hawaii to climb to 5-4 on the season heading into the Diamond Head Classic that begins on Thursday. North Carolina A&T (4-8) played the farthest it ever has from its Greensboro campus and lost its fourth straight, all on the road. The Aggies haven't played at home since Nov. 28 and won't again until Jan. 3 after three more on the road - two in Ohio and one in Texas.
Hawaii's two leading scorers - guards Zane Johnson and Shaquille Stokes - combined for 32 points, but shot just 7-for-26 from the field and each went 2-for-7 from the 3-point line. They also combined for nine of Hawaii's 22 turnovers.
Vander Joaquim, a 6-foot-10 junior center, made his first five shots from the field and finished with 16 points.
It was Stokes, a true freshman and the New York City high school player of the year last season, who came up big as the Aggies hung around almost all night long.
Stokes made his 3s in an 88-second span to give Hawaii the lead each time midway through the second half. His first trey came off a nifty pass from Bobby Miles and made it 42-40 UH with 12 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game.
After the Aggies' Jean Louisme answered with a 3 to give N.C. A&T the lead for the last time at 43-42, Stokes came down the floor and buried his last 3 off an assist from Joston Thomas with 11:12 to go. Stokes' 3s sparked a 22-8 Hawaii run that gave the Warriors a 61-48 lead with 3:23 to play.
Stokes had 10 points, two rebounds and a steal in the run.
"I just picked it up on the defensive end and that trickled down to my offense, so I was getting easy buckets, I felt comfortable out there," Stokes said. "I'm just happy we got the win."
Stokes agreed that the atmosphere was electric in the building that is more than half a century old.
"It was great, the volume was great, the fans were loud, cheering," Stokes said. "We put on a heck of a show for the crowd from Maui and we appreciate them for coming. They supported us well and we got the 'W,' so it was fun out here."
Stokes filled up the box score with 19 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals. He also was 5-for-16 from the floor and had five turnovers.
"It is still a win, I will take an ugly win," he said. "I mean, we are still growing as a team. We only have two seniors on the team, so we are still young and we are going to get better."
UH had a 35-30 lead at halftime before the Aggies rallied to take the lead twice in the second half. They were still within 47-46 with 8:44 to play after a 3-pointer by Jeremy Underwood.
Stokes sank four straight free throws from there to give Hawaii a 51-48 lead - his second set of two makes started a 12-0 run that appeared to put the game away. The Aggies' Marc Hill made a pair of 3-pointers with under a minute to play to bring his team back within 63-57 with 46 seconds to go.
Hill led the Aggies with 17 points.
Stokes led his team in scoring for the second straight game and fourth time this season.
"I'm still a freshman, so I'm going through ups and downs like a roller coaster right now," he said. "I'm building confidence that as the season goes on and I am just starting to play like I normally play."
Johnson shot 2-for-10 for the second straight game. He admitted that his weekend's schedule - Hawaii played UH-Hilo in Kona on Friday night, Johnson and Miah Ostrowski flew to Oahu to graduate on Saturday, then came to Maui on Saturday afternoon, practiced from 9-11 p.m. Saturday night before a walkthrough at the team hotel in Wailea on Sunday - was brutal.
"It was tough, longest weekend of my life," he said. "I think I slept five or six hours the whole time. It was a good experience, one I don't want to do again. I am glad it's over, believe me."
Johnson said the crowd was key to the win.
"We couldn't have asked for anything more, these fans were great, they were loud the whole game, they stayed engaged, they really helped us come back and keep fighting," Johnson said. "It is a great atmosphere, it was super loud and they were all on our side, so they got super loud when we scored and it was hard for them to run their sets. It was a great experience, I wish I could do it more."
Aggies coach Jerry Eaves also said it was a special night.
"It was beautiful, don't you think? Television, the fans were into the game, all 40 minutes, both teams played hard," he said. "Hats off to Hawaii. They made big shots at the right time. It was nip and tuck the whole way, but they won the game."
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com
N.C. A&T (57)
L. Smith 1-2 3-5 5, Powell 2-7 0-0 5, Upchurch 5-8 1-1 11, Hill 6-15 3-5 17, Witter 1-5 0-0 3, Underwood 2-3 2-2 8, Louisme 2-10 0-0 6, Buck 0-1 0-0 0, Shephard 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 20-53 9-13 57.
Johnson 2-10 7-7 13, Stokes 5-16 7-8 19, Thomas 1-1 0-2 2, Joaquim 6-9 4-4 16, Wiseman 2-4 2-4 6, Miles 1-1 1-2 4, Jefferson 0-1 1-3 1, Ostrowski 0-0 0-0 0, Rozitis 1-2 2-2 4, Brereton 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 18-47 24-32 65.
Halftime-Hawaii 35-30. 3-Point Goals-NC A&T 8-27 (Underwood 2-3, Hill 2-6, Louisme 2-8, Powell 1-4, Witter 1-5, Buck 0-1), Hawaii 5-16 (Johnson 2-7, Stokes 2-7, Miles 1-1, Brereton 0-1). Fouled Out-Underwood. Rebounds-NC A&T 29 (Powell, Upchurch 6), Hawaii 38 (Joaquim 7). Assists-NC A&T 9 (Powell, Underwood, Witter 2), Hawaii 11 (Ostrowski, Stokes, Thomas 2). Total Fouls-NC A&T 27, Hawaii 16. A-1,412.