There was almost nothing more difficult for Jessiya Villa.
He sat there, moments after running through pre-game warmups, T-shirt and game shorts on. Sneakers, too. Normally, a player ruled out by a coach due to injury won’t suit up for a game. But Villa was two-thirds dressed and ready to jump onto the court at McKinley Student Council Gymnasium on Tuesday night.
He wanted to play. Surely, the Kahuku Red Raiders wanted him there, too. But Brandyn Akana stuck by his decision. The coach, who is also Villa’s uncle, said that his point guard would sit, even after clearing concussion protocol. Kailua, ranked eighth in the Star-Advertiser Boys Basketball Top 10, a team that had already slain powerhouses like ‘Iolani, waited with a game plan drawn up with intricate precision by coach Walter Marciel.
Kahuku had already qualified for the state tourney, making this OIA semifinal game important, but not do-or-die. But there was no choice for Kahuku. Their point guard needed more time to recover. It was just a week ago when Akana, the second-year head coach, remarked about the intensity level of every Kahuku practice. How the starters often laid down a physical wipeout of reserve players. How the backups are hungry for minutes after all those hoops beatdowns.
No one knew Villa would be a casualty of those bruising encounters. He took it well while sitting on the bench, still was in game mode not long after Kahuku eked out a 42-40 win over Kailua.
“It was rough,” he said. “But the guys pulled it out. I’m just happy for them.”
Villa’s absence was absolutely evident. Without him, Kahuku shot 2-for-11 from deep. That put more pressure on mid-range shooters, and the Red Raiders failed to connect on open elbow shots all night. Though Kahuku has depth and athleticism, against a big team like Kailua that also has talented, savvy guards, Kahuku’s backcourt edge was nullified. Everett Torres-Kahapea hit big 3-pointers, uncontested until Akana assigned Codie Sauvao to blanket the shooter.
Kahuku was in a fog offensively for three quarters-plus, using a variety of ballhandlers at the top of its offense against a stingy Kailua 2-3 zone. Ultimately, Big Red did better with Sauvao, Kesi Ah-Hoy and Samuta Avea swinging the ball. Avea’s height (6-foot-6) gave him clear vision and passing lanes, and his ability to drive on the ball reversal and in clutch fashion, drain a 23-foot trey from the top to bring Kahuku within one point, was major.
Dan Fotu kept attacking when give the opportunity, and his 15/10 effort, plus defensive work protecting the rim, proved crucial again. With Fotu and Avea in hawk mode above the rim, Kahuku has the defensive prowess that can and does neutralize big teams like Kailua, which got just two points (and nine boards) from elite athlete Christian Mejia.
One-on-one, at 6-4 Mejia is a constant force on the block. But dealing with two superb shot blockers — the 6-7 Fotu is deceptively strong with his lower body against bigger foes — is something almost no team in the state can counter. That is, without great passing, particularly to the weak side of the court.
‘Iolani lost to Kailua in preseason, then returned the favor during the ‘Iolani Classic. Their dominant big, 6-9 Hugh Hogland, has developed his passing skills to a high level. The Raiders’ only challenge when defenses collapse on Hogland is whether their perimeter shooters can be consistent. Other than Bailey Alabanza, the Raiders have been adequate, not blazing hot, from the arc.
Punahou has sturdy Duke Clemens on the block, surrounded by 6-foot slashers and one deadly 3-point weapon: Chris Kobayashi. He might be the best catch-and-shoot triggerman in the islands. The rest of the Buffanblu can hit from deep, but they’ll be covered more than, say, Hogland’s teammates will be. Clemens is a beast against typical defenders, but against Fotu or Avea, or even Kahuku’s 6-4 post Taimona Wright, he is likely to have single coverage.
Maryknoll has a couple of posts in Jaylen Cain and Kaulana Schmidt who rely on mid-range drives and great footwork near the rim, but neither is going to draw a double team on the block if and when the Spartans play Kahuku. Of all the teams in the ILH, and the state, the Spartans have one of the best 3-point shooting crews with Isiah Gelacio, Jordyn Perez and more.
And that’s where this comes full circle. Kahuku is not a good 3-point shooting team, though Akana was quite a mad bomber in his playing days. Defenses tend to go zone against Kahuku, which is patient with the ball on most possessions. Villa provides two major components: He has 3-point accuracy out to NBA range, and he can slash to the basket to score or pass as well as anyone statewide against man defense.
He has an alpha-dog mentality on offense, pushing the pace and getting his team in high gear from start to finish. He doesn’t just take contact; he is willing to force a defense to collapse on him. It’s a high-risk approach that has worked in terms of his health. He hasn’t had a major injury despite all the contact on his 6-foot frame.
When Thursday rolls around and Kahuku meets Kapolei in the OIA title game, Villa will be well rested, fully charged and bringing a motor that never turns off. Kapolei’s backcourt, Ja‘Shon Carter and Isiah Higa, is among the best in the state, handling fullcourt pressure, moving the ball, attacking gaps and, most importantly, not settling for average shots. Who will cover Villa?
I asked Villa weeks ago, if you’re drawing a lot of coverage and ended up with 15 assists, could you do it?
He paused for a moment. Fifteen assists? Fifteen buckets, very do-able. But 15 dishes? The answer, of course, was yes. That time might be coming very soon.