By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
The University of Hawaii men’s basketball program has fielded many great teams in its 101-year history, but none captured the fans’ hearts quite like the “Fabulous Five.”
The talented quintet – Bob Nash, Al Davis, John Penebacker, Dwight Holiday and Jerome Freeman – played to sold-out crowds in the 1979-71 and 1971-72 seasons. They compiled a cumulative record of 47-8 in those two campaigns and led the program to national prominence.
The “Fabulous Five” were also responsible for a “fabulous first”: The program’s first-ever postseason appearance.
Let’s go back to March 22, 1971. Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Rainbow Warriors, who finished the regular season with a stellar 22-4 record, were matched against the University of Oklahoma in a National Invitational Tournament first-round game. The Sooners were 19-7 coming into the contest and were led by high-scoring 6-5 forward Bobby Jack and 6-9 pivot Clifford Ray, who would later win an NBA championship with the 1975 Golden State Warriors. Oklahoma’s head coach was John MacLeod, who later became an NBA head coach for nearly 20 years.
The game did not start well for the Rainbow Warriors. They committed costly mistakes and shot only .395 in the first half. Worse, the Sooners’ Bobby Jack was on fire, scoring 21 points before intermission. Hawaii trailed the Sooners, 46-35, at the half.
UH head coach Red Rocha made adjustments. Most notably, he directed defensive stopper John Penebacker to play aggressively against Jack, rather than sagging off him to help his teammates defensively.
Hawaii outscored Oklahoma, 13-6, early on in the second half to close the gap. The offense began to click, and UH kept chipping away at the lead. Finally, with three minutes left in regulation, Hawaii reserve Tom Newell hit a deep jumper from the right baseline to tie the game at 71. Oklahoma responded with a field goal of their own, but Al Davis answered for the Rainbow Warriors with a jumper to again tie the game with 2:01 left.
UH got the ball back, and Jerome Freeman used his ball-handling wizardry to dribble the ball down to the game’s final 10 seconds. After a time out, Newell attempted a shot from the free throw area, but the ball bounced off the rim.
Hawaii took a 77-73 lead with 2:28 left in the extra period, but the Sooners fought back. Jack’s jumper from the top of the key knotted the game up again. Then Freeman, playing for the final shot, drove into the lane and was called for charging. Oklahoma’s desperation heave with just seconds left was off target.
UH again raced out to a lead, and again Oklahoma responded. Hawaii was up, 84-77, but that dwindled to 84-81 with 2:01 remaining. A pair of Sooner free throws narrowed it to 84-83. Bob Nash missed a shot, but grabbed the rebound and laid the ball in for an 86-83 advantage with under a minute to play. Oklahoma’s Jack buried a jumper to make it 86-85.
With 12 seconds left in the game, the Sooners fouled Newell. The reserve guard (Dwight Holiday fouled out earlier in the game) stepped up to the line and made both free throws to again put the ‘Bows ahead by 3. Jack hit another jumper with six seconds left, but Hawaii ran out the clock to secure the hard-earned victory.
Final score: Hawaii 88, Oklahoma 87.
It was a complete team victory and the “Fabulous Five” were, well, fabulous. Penebacker led Hawaii in scoring with 20 points. Nash had 19 points and 15 rebounds. Davis contributed 18 points and 14 boards. Freeman finished with 13 points and Holiday scored 10. Newell contributed 8 key points.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Tom Hopkins wrote the next day, “It is without a doubt the greatest triumph in Rainbow basketball history.”
Hawaii fell to St. Bonaventure in the next round, but the loss did little to dampen the fans’ enthusiasm for the Rainbow Warriors. And the next season, the “Fabulous Five” would achieve another fabulous first: Hawaii’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
Hawaii’s postgame celebration. Standing far left is Lt. Gov. George Ariyoshi.
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