HILO — When it was time for the University of Hawaii at Hilo to milk the clock, play to the home crowd and close out victory, coach GE Coleman signaled slow-down mode by raising one hand and giving a thumbs up.
Much leading up to that point Thursday night came in threes, and the theme is sure to be repeated if not increased on Senior Night.
The Vulcans’ trio of seniors trailed entering their third-to-last half of basketball, but Coleman gave them three points of advice: take advantage of it; enjoy it; have fun.
Lucas Swanson, Derek Owens and Brandon Thomas achieved the clean sweep in that regard with their own work, and largely because of the second-half heroics of junior Yevgeniy Dyachenko.
The Vulcans (6-19, 3-16 Pacific West Conference) ride a three-game winning streak into their finale Saturday night against Hawaii Pacific at UHH Gym on the heels of a 90-84 comeback victory against Fresno Pacific in which Dyachenko delivered 27 points —22 in the second half — and hit five 3-pointers.
“It’s all about confidence, ” Coleman said. “He stayed with it and tonight is a credit to him staying with it. I’m proud of him.”
He just as well could have been talking about Swanson, a guard from Vancouver, Wash.; Owens, a guard from Tempe, Ariz.; and Thomas, a forward from Lakewood, Wash.
On Saturday, UHH will pay tribute to its lone women’s senior, Waiakea High graduate Kamie Imai, after the Vulcans play the Sea Warriors at 5 p.m. The men’s seniors will be honored before the 7:30 p.m. tip-off.
“Like I said all year, with a new regime in here and things not always going the right way for us, these seniors have really bought in to our program and what I’m trying to do here,” Coleman said. “I want them to go out on a high note.
“They’re great kids, and they’re going to be successful in whatever they do after basketball. It will be great night for them and hopefully we can keep it going.”
The Vulcans trailed by seven at the break Thursday night and by as many as 10 in the second half against a athletic Sunbirds team that features four former Division I players. But UHH persevered behind Dyachenko’s hot hand and 24-of-27 shooting from the free-throw line. Dyachenko’s fourth 3-pointer of the half whittled the deficit down to 76-73 with 5:01 remaining in the game.
“The biggest thing we talked about (at the half) was to compete,” Coleman said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re flat or tired. You’ve got to find a way to compete.”
The first-year coach credited a 1-3-1 defense with slowing down Fresno Pacific’s Malcolm Griffin, who scored 23 points, but only eight after halftime.
The Sunbirds (11-16, 6-13), missed six of seven shots from the field during one stretch. Meanwhile, Dyachenko, Swanson (11 points, seven rebounds) and Lucas (15) each drew fouls and went to the line and hit two free throws as UHH grabbed the lead for the first time since early in the first half.
Dyachenko’s 3-pointer put the Vulcans ahead 84-80 with 1:15 left and proved to be the dagger.
“He can shoot,” Coleman said. “If you leave him open, he’s got a very good stroke. I was proud of him. We don’t win that game without him, that’s for sure.”
Junior Joey Rodriguez scored 15 points, and Thomas added eight points and 10 rebounds.
While the Lady Vulcans still have playoff positioning to sort out, the men’s team is playing for pride.
Win or lose, Coleman said his three seniors have paved the way by giving the type of effort he expects from future players in the red and white.
“If we can keep that common theme going of always competing and playing hard all the time and build off that,” Coleman said. “The foundation is set of how we want to play and compete all the time. Now, let’s bring in the talent that does that all the time and hopefully get this turned in the right direction.”