St. Francis holds on to win ILH title

St. Francis' Nani Santos put up a shot over Hawaii Baptist's Sasha Phillip (50) and Ally Wada (22) in an overtime win to clinch the ILH D-II title. Photo by Dennis Oda/Star-Advertiser.

The last time the St. Francis Saints won the ILH girls basketball championship, well, they weren’t even the Saints.

Back then, they were the Troubadours, which is only fitting. With a dramatic, sometimes poetic 47-43 win over No. 10-ranked Hawaii Baptist on Saturday afternoon, No. 6 St. Francis captured its first league crown since 2001. In other words, the four senior Saints were still in diapers.

“Our seniors, the four of us working together, our whole team jelled together and we finally got the championship,” said guard Kalei Kaimi, who had 12 points and two key free throws in the late going.

At 23-0 overall and 15-0 in ILH Division II, the Saints are the lone unbeaten girls hoops team in the state. St. Francis and HBA are the only D-II programs in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. At times today, the Saints made clutch, flawless plays. At other times, they looked like a team that hasn’t had much real competition since preseason. By the final minute of play, they were a better team for it thanks to a gritty effort by HBA.

“Sometimes we had a smaller team out there,” Saints coach Chris Hoe said of the matchup challenges of facing the speedy Eagles. “They played well and kept their composure. I feel it’s a great accomplishment for our team, all the hard work they put in, the extra shots after practice. Putting everything together.”

The win also sealed an automatic berth in the D-II state tournament for St. Francis. HBA (22-7, 13-2 ILH) will enter the ILH playoff tournament, which will reward three more teams with state berths. Coach Keith Sugiura was proud of his team despite the loss.

“This is what it’s all about. A great atmosphere with great competition. We’re obviously disappointed for the girls, but we’re proud of their effort,” he said.

For St. Francis, there has never been a season quite like this — teammates Savannah Neves and Kealani Neves left the school two days before Christmas — with adversity and so much success.

On Nov. 18, St. Francis won at Sacred Hearts 56-41. Sacred Hearts later was ranked in each weekly Top 10 until recently. On Nov. 30, the Saints stymied another future Top 10 team, Punahou, 49-31. They haven’t played another D-I team since, but a 41-37 overtime win at HBA on Dec. 23 comes close. Despite a D-II designation, HBA has been a powerhouse for years.

Ally Wada left the game with an injury. Dennis Oda / doda@staradvertiser.com

One of the most stunning aspects of the win today was that HBA played so well despite losing standout Ally Wada to injury late in the second quarter. HBA got into the bonus late in the first quarter and Wada had yet to score. She finally attacked the basket, bounced off defender Misiona Ribeiro, fell to the floor and rolled into the legs of Skye Ah Yat, who then collapsed onto Wada’s head.

Wada was down for several minutes before walking off the court the help of two trainers.

HBA, down 22-18 with roughly two minutes left in the first half, could have wilted. With a chance to beat St. Francis and create a first-place tie, the Eagles roared back. Sophomore Sasha Phillip, younger sister of former ‘Iolani All-State selection Ikaika Phillip. was clutch. She stepped up with 10 points, including two big free throws to give HBA a 41-40 lead with 3:18 to play.

Kyley Nakagawa was relentless from the start and led the Eagles with 16 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore Cyndi Yoshida hit three treys and finished with 13 points. It was, many times, a matter of destiny for HBA to pull off a minor miracle, or it sure seemed that way.

But the fatigue of playing without Wada caught up. The 5-9 senior left the game with eight rebounds, and though she didn’t score before the injury, she had 25 points in the previous matchup with St. Francis.

As a team, the Eagles shot just 17-for-35 from the free-throw line, well below their average. Wada, a 71-percent shooter from the charity stripe, was missed.

By the time Kaimi sank two free throws to give the Saints a 44-42 lead with 1:39 left, the Eagles were just about grounded. Nakagawa made one of two foul shots with 35 seconds remaining, but the Eagles came up empty from that point on from the field.

Nani Santos (13 points) and freshman Trisadee Kahunahana sank foul shots to stretch the Saints’ precarious lead to 46-43. With 6.6 seconds left, Ah Yat lined up to shoot her free throws, a one-handed shot that hit nothing but net to put the game on ice for St. Francis.

For the Saints, it was about balance, even as they chased the smaller Eagles all game long. Ribeiro, a 5-9 senior, scored eight points and took turns with Kahunahana defending Wada. Kawena Kalani, a junior guard, hustled for nine rebounds to go with six points.

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