Defense writes winning code for No. 1 Maryknoll

Kamehameha’s Noelle Sua-Godinet drove toward the basket against the tight defense of Maryknoll’s Isabella Cravens during a game in December. Injuries have caused Kamehameha to drop to No. 6 on Paul Honda's latest top-10 ballot. Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell/Star-Advertiser (Dec. 15, 2017)

Yes, No. 1 Maryknoll held on for a 46-38 win over No. 2 Kamehameha on Friday night. But with a key injury to one of the state’s best post players, Kamehameha really shouldn’t have been this close.

“You didn’t give us enough credit,” Warriors coach Joseph Cho said.

He’s right. I’ve seen quite a bit of this mature Warriors team. Young as they are, they hang in there no matter what the situation. And this time, the situation should’ve been too big for them. So this was supposed to happen in some pupule universe far, far away.

>> Maryknoll, a.k.a. The Empire, would stand strong and tall, withstanding a tough-nosed Kamehameha team for one half. The lead against the Warriors, playing without standout center Kalina Obrey (fractured hand) would be around four or five points by the break. That’s what a gritty Warriors team can do against anyone, even with a starter on the bench. And so it was. The Spartans led 29-22 at halftime.

>> Maryknoll would then stretch the margin as Kamehameha’s younger lineup became physically and mentally fatigued. Which is what happened. Jewel “Princy” Paaluhi-Caulk, bless her roundball heart (and still-wrapped up shooting hand), had 11 points in a brilliant first half, but couldn’t get quite enough help in the third quarter against Maryknoll’s full-court pressure. The Spartans turned it into a 7-0 run and opened the lead to 36-22 with 3:23 to go in the third.

“We’re up 14. We have a chance to put them away,” Maryknoll coach Chico Furtado said later.

And he’s right. Kamehameha, playing a bunch of sophomores, should have wilted and stayed down for the count. It’s just one game, on the road, in hostile territory.

Then something broke the script. Maryknoll, launching bombs all night against Kamehameha’s 2-3 zone, kept launching. And launching. And launching. The Spartans finished the game 3-for-21 from the arc, practically begging Kamehameha to rally back into the game.

It was a code certainly not written by the normally conservative Furtado, but the consistent bomb-launching was so deliberate, well, it had to be by design. Right? Riiiight?

“No. In our halfcourt sets, we still don’t understand patience. We’ve got to do better with understanding time and possession,” Furtado said.

It works something like this.

+16 lead, 11 minutes left = Nice, but not safe, so attack the paint
+16 lead, 8 minutes left = Not safe, but almost there, attack the paint*
+16 lead, 4 minutes left = Much safer. Keep grinding. Let your opponent lose focus, rush shots and fall into your hands. Attack the paint
+16 lead, 1 minute left = Almost there. Launch all the bombs you like, sorta

(* At this point, any team with a 16-point lead and 8 minutes to play can make it virtually impossible to lose by eating at least 50 seconds off the clock with each possession. That would limit the opposing team to probably eight or fewer possessions for the rest of the game. The opponents would have to score 2 points on every possession while your team would have to be scoreless, a combination of circumstances which is highly improbable, just to tie the game.)

Instead, the Spartans confidently missed shots from the 3-point arc as center Isabella Cravens was constantly being covered by two Warriors. Sometimes it was junior Brooke Manuel and senior Kiana Vierra — playing through a fever and the flu — sandwiching Cravens. Sometimes it was Noelle Sua-Godinet and Vierra. But always, it was two defenders in physical contact with Cravens.

The high post was open all night. The ball kept launching from 19 feet, 9 inches. If those shots splash say, a third of the time (a standard 33 percent), Furtado probably can live with it. That’s 7-for-21 instead of 3/21. That’s an additional 12 points. That’s a comfort zone.

Instead, Kamehameha chipped away. Freshman Camille Feary swished a corner 3. Cravens muscled her way inside for one of her eight offensive rebounds (11 total with 11 points), but missed two foul shots. Feary scored on a follow shot. 38-29. Vierra (11 points, nine boards, two blocks) drove left for an and-1 three-point play. 38-32 as the third quarter ends.

Furtado is done with the silence. He raises the volume. We don’t understand time and possession. He’s not asking for perfection. He’s asking for high-percentage shots since, well, there’s a lot of time on the shot clock.

How much time?

Infinity. There is no shot clock, unless a team up by 16 points wisely translates the game clock as a true shot clock countdown to victory. Furtado is not asking his team to stall. But when the Spartans hit the high post, then the low post, they get easy layups.

“Our posts missed a bunch of shots down low,” he said.

But he can live with that. In the end, Maryknoll’s defense wins out. They limit Kamehameha to 4-for-18 shooting from deep and force the Warriors into 19 turnovers. That’s a whopping 19-6 edge in turnovers, 13 extra possessions in that category alone. For all their rim-clanging shooting on this night — they usually don’t miss this much — the Spartans were basically perfect with taking care of the ball. Just two turnovers through three quarters. Of course, when you’re taking quick shots, that tends to keep giveaways to a minimum.

Here’s how Kamehameha’s giveaways played out as the biggest factor. It’s points per possession, a simplistic and possibly overrated interpretation of basketball numbers. But for me, it works much like yards per pass attempt in football. It doesn’t tell us whether any offense is truly consistent, but it does flatten out all the bubbles.

Team A may flash and splash with constant 3-point shooting and no-look passes, but in the end, if every torrid shooting streak is matched by a string of turnovers and one-shot possessions, the numbers often turn negative. Team B might rarely take a 3, but when it does, it’s a wide-open result of ball movement, often inside-out, and the emphasis on easy layups leads to more consistency and high-percentage looks. And offensive-rebounding opportunities because defenders are chasing the offense all over the floor. Maybe more boring, often more efficient.

The NBA shot clock was created at 24 seconds so that teams would almost precisely generate 100 possessions per game, and at 1 point per possession, an offense would average 100 points per game. Thus, saving the old NBA from killing its dwindling fan base with a case of bored-to-tears disease. And 53-49 scores.

So what did Kamehameha and Maryknoll produce in PPP?

>> Kamehameha took 38 shots from the field (15 field goals made). The Warriors also took 10 free throws in five more possessions. That’s 43 possessions now, but they also had six offensive rebounds. More possessions. That brings the total to 49. But add in the 19 turnovers and Kamehameha actually had 68 possessions. Most teams that can average one point per possession are doing fairly well. Kamehameha had 38 points on 68 possessions. That’s .559 points per possession. That’s a long night at the office.

When they didn’t turn the ball over, of course the numbers are skewed. They are heavenly, and heaven just doesn’t exist on earth. After all, 38 points on 49 possessions when the turnovers are excluded, that’s somewhat close to 1 point per possession (.78). That’s pretty good stuff, especially when your skilled post scorer is sidelined.

>> Maryknoll finished with 56 field-goal attempts (18 field goals made). The Spartans took 15 free throws out of seven possessions. That’s 63 possessions now. They had 13 offensive boards. That’s 76 possessions. Six turnovers, 82 possessions. The offensive boards tilt this heavily toward Maryknoll. Forty-six points in 82 possessions is .561 points per possession.

Again, Kamehameha .559. Maryknoll .561. You can see why Furtado is far from pleased with his offense sometimes. But he’s stoked about his team’s defense. The full-court pressure was part of the package he doesn’t hesitate to operate when his freshmen are on the floor. Maryknoll brought up FOUR FRESHMEN to play in this game against its biggest challenger in the ILH. Those four ninth-graders will never play another JV game again. For the record, the JV team is done with its regular season. There’s one playoff game ahead.

Furtado wanted them up on the varsity precisely to provide the kind of constant on-ball pressure that would, they hoped, wear the Warriors down. That aspect was a success. Who else has the luxury of bringing up four freshmen who are ready to inflict elite-level pressure defense in their first-ever varsity game? Who does that? Who has developed the kind of players who think nothing unusual about this?

Think about it. Is there an OIA or KIF or MIL or BIIF team that has a surplus of talent on the JV team like this?

>> Jalen Tanuvasa attacked relentlessly in her limited minutes. Her line isn’t eye-popping, but the eye test reveals that she can stroke the open 3 and drive explosively to the cup in an instant. She finished with four points on 2-for-4 shooting and had three rebounds with just one turnover.

>> Twin sisters Aloha and Mahalo Akaka brought defensive coverage and intensity. Aloha didn’t score or take a shot. Mahalo was 0-for-2. Another freshman, Serenity Moananu also didn’t have any stats.

Yes, Maryknoll utilized its athletic starters in fullcourt pressure during the second half. The point is, Furtado has his rotation. He has his post players. He has his wings and a consistent PG in Rhianne Omori (eight points, four boards, five assists, two steals). He has his long, quick wing players. And when he simply wants to wage conflict in the backcourt and midcourt, he can shuttle in his keiki corps (not necessarily all at once), and they enjoy being ballhawks for the minute or two or three that he keeps them on the floor — while his rotation players get some valuable rest.

Before long, it might become a new truism: to get on the court, it’s best to play great defense and commit near-zero turnovers rather than settle for C+ shot attempts. After all, most championship teams don’t need eight great scorers. They need the right chemistry, and everyone knows chemistry is more science than art. At 14-1 overall, Furtado’s laboratory is in public view, and he is leaving the past in the rear-view mirror. The first 15 games are history.

The Spartans hit the road next week to play in the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas Nov. 20-23.

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