March 10, 2012 at 3:01 AM HST - Updated June 26 at 12:34 PM
LAS VEGAS (HawaiiNewsNow) – The University of Hawai'i men's basketball team put together a courageous comeback before eventually falling to New Mexico State, 92-81, in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals Friday night at the Orleans Arena. UH finished the season with a 16-16 mark.
In a highly entertaining game, the No. 6 seed Rainbow Warriors almost erased a 20-point deficit in a near-upset of the No. 2 seed Aggies (25-9). Freshman Shaquille Stokes tied his career-high with 21 points, while junior center Vander Joaquim tallied 17 points. In his final appearance in a basketball uniform, senior Jeremiah Ostrowski tallied a career-high 13 assists. He finished the season averaging 7.0 assists per game, the third-highest single-season average in school history.
All-WAC forward Wendall McKines led five different Aggies in double-digits with a game-high 22 points as New Mexico State won for the eighth time in its last nine contests and advanced to the tournament finals for the second time in three years.
UH got off to a nightmare start as the game looked early on as if it would be a repeat of the 42-point whitewash the 'Bows experienced just two weeks earlier in Las Cruces. The Aggies stormed out with the first 17 points and built a 20-point lead, 22-2, just six minutes into the game.
But a resilient UH squad wouldn't buckle. The 'Bows rode the surge of a 22-9 run in just six minutes time—capped by a Stokes three-pointer—to cut the lead to six points. The Aggies eventually took a 47-38 lead into the break, but the 'Bows owned the momentum after cutting its early deficit in half.
UH continued it rally in the second half and made it just a one-point game, 61-60, on a Hauns Brereton jumper with 10:36 remaining. But UH couldn't quite get over the hump as Hernst Laroche converted a four-point play on NMSU's ensuing possession to push the lead back to five. UH battled to the bitter end and was within three points with less than five minutes left, though that would be as close as it would get as the Aggies slowly pulled away in the closing minutes.
Hawai'i shot a sizzling 60 percent in the second half to aid the rally and finished the team 57 percent from the floor. The 'Bows also buried 12-of-13 from the free throw line. But New Mexico State was equally hot, shooting 53 percent from the field, while out-rebounding UH, 36-22.
UH concluded the season with losses in six of its finals seven games, but still concluded on a high note by giving its fans a pair of thrilling WAC Tournament games. The 'Bows won their first WAC Tournament game in seven years and advanced to the semifinals for the first time in nine years.