If you are a Kahuku boys basketball fan, it may be best to stop reading right here.
Unranked Kalaheo proved, with a miraculous 55-53 win over Kahuku in the Oahu Interscholastic Association championship game on Wednesday night, that in this league, it’s never how you start. Kalaheo not only learned to finish, the Mustangs finished strong with wins over two teams — Kapolei was the other one — that were previously unbeaten in league play. They did it with tough-nosed man-to-man defense. They did it with relentlessly optimistic perimeter shooting, getting a 23-foot straightaway 3 by 6-foot-1 Cannen Chiu over the long arms of 6-10 Tolu Smith, with 1.9 seconds to play, regaining the lead for good.
For more than 31 minutes on Wednesday, the Red Raiders were crisper, fresher and better than the Kalaheo Mustangs. Kahuku, unbeaten in OIA play, looked every part the Goliath of the league. After a 20-4 blitzkrieg in the second quarter, the team in red led 32-16 at the half.
Then Kahuku did something unexpected. They faltered. They got sloppy. Kalaheo started beating the No. 4-ranked team in the state to loose balls. Though the game seemed out of reach, Harry Wallace did what Harry Wallace always does. He blazed to the right corner to save the ball after a teammate’s miss. Wallace wound up with the ball, alone on the right wing.
Splash. It seemed like no big deal at the time, not with Kahuku still up 34-18 early in the third quarter. But on the play, one of Kahuku’s hustling energizers, Marcus Damuni, hurt his ankle and limped off the court.
There wasn’t a single Red Raider fan in sight on a humid, fairly crowded night at McKinley Student Council gymnasium who imagined things would crumble. Especially with Smith on the floor. If Smith scores nine points on 4-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter, Kahuku really can’t lose, can it? If Kalaheo’s powerful 6-4 senior, Andrew Kearney, plays with a badly sprained ankle and fouls out with 1:26 left, the Mustangs don’t win, do they?
This battle between longtime rivals was about twists and tweaks. It was about a team that had enough room to grow and develop its young players, like sophomore Kanoa Smith and freshman Luke Pardini.
The Red Raiders took precautions. Coach Brandyn Akana called time out with 2:24 left in the third quarter, his team ahead 37-25. After Chiu swished a wing 3 and senior Ryan Pardini hustled for a follow basket, the Mustangs were within 37-30.
Kahuku got Smith going in the fourth quarter, but Kalaheo kept answering. Eventually, it became a battle of Kahuku’s 2-point baskets against Kalaheo’s 3-pointers. Ryan Pardini’s corner 3 cut the score to 45-41, but Smith answered with a spin on the block for a deuce and a 47-43 lead. On the same play, Kearney fouled out, and with 5:10 remaining, Kalaheo’s chanced seemed to dim.
“I wasn’t worried for a second. I’m confident in our team,” Kearney said.
Chiu swished a corner 3. As Kahuku switched to a 1-2-2 zone, Kalaheo committed consecutive turnovers and Smith seemed unstoppable in the paint. Then came one of the oddest moments ever in an OIA boys basketball championship game. After Ruanui Winitana was fouled by Kalaheo, Kahuku sophomore was assessed a technical foul. Winitana hit one of his two free throws, as did Chiu.
But now Kalaheo had the ball with 58.9 seconds left, trailing 53-49. That’s when Smith moved into range and played the sniper role once again. On Monday, he connected on two 3-pointers in the late going to spark a comeback and a 56-53 win over Kapolei.
This time, it was his all-net 3 from the left wing that came at the perfect moment. That shot cut the lead to 53-52 with 35 seconds left. Kahuku was called for an offensive foul 4 seconds later. The Red Raiders never got another shot attempt off.
“That was a big shot by Kanoa,” Coach Pardini said. “He has been the money man in crunch time. He steps up, but he’s mellow. Cool as ice.”
Down one point, Pardini directed his team to attack the basket, get a layup or a putback. It was the right strategy. Chiu was supposed to drive in, but by the time he got the roundball, there were just 4 seconds remaining.
“That’s not enough time to drive,” Chiu said.
With Smith and his amazing height and length, Chiu worked his misdirections with the basketball before stepping back and launching from 23 feet out.
“I had to add some arch,” he said. “I thought I missed to the right.”
Instead, the ball found the cup, rattling home to give the Mustangs their first lead, 55-53, since the opening moments of the game.
Then, something odd happened. Twice.
With 1.9 seconds on the clock, Kahuku sent Sol-Jay Maiava, one of the top quarterbacks in the state, behind the end line to inbounds the ball. He even mimicked the body language of a QB in the shotgun before a referee gave him the ball. Maiava’s two-handed chest pass hit the ceiling near midcourt, a violation.
Then came a turnover by Kalaheo. Kahuku’s ball in the deep backcourt corner and just six-tenths of a second left. Maiava settled back behind the line, but instead of rocketing one of his football-style passes to a waiting Smith at the rim – single covered by Chiu, a nine-inch height advantage — the inbounds chest pass was picked off well short of the key area. Two opportunities in the final 1.9 seconds, and Smith never got a chance.
He finished with 21 points, six rebounds and two blocks. All the help defense, the double and triple teams — those didn’t stop him from attacking the heart of Kalaheo’s defense. For all of his court vision and pinpoint passes from the high and low post, Smith and his teammates lost much of their cohesion after halftime. Kahuku committed eight turnovers in the third quarter and nine more in the fourth against Kalaheo’s fullcourt press.
After giving the ball away just three times in the first half, Kahuku committed 17 turnovers. The Red Raiders had as many field-goals made as giveaways. They shot 51 percent from the field (20-for-39) and 76 percent from the free-throw line (13-for-17), but finished the game with as many turnovers as baskets (20) — never a promising indicator — to nullify any and all momentum.
Kalaheo shot just 36 percent from the field and was outrebounded 28-21, but countered that low rate with A) 7-for-17 shooting from the 3-point arc (41 percent) and B) 11 offensive rebounds. The finality came with 7-for-8 free-throw shooting in the final quarter and, of course, Chiu’s 3-point game-winner.
That ends Kahuku’s 11-game win streak in league play. It’s 12 wins in a row counting a 68-52 victory over Campbell at the St. Francis Hoops Classic. In fact, the last time Kahuku lost, it was a highly-debated last-second shot by Punahou, giving the Buffanblu a 50-48 win.
Injuries. Inexperience. Teamwork. The Mustangs were 7-1 in nonconference play before losing to Punahou, and then winning three of the next four games. Then came that six-game losing spell against what might be the roughest stretch for any boys team outside the ILH: at Kamehameha, Bishop O’Dowd (Calif), Maryknoll, Kamehameha, Pearl City, at Kahuku.
That last matchup at Kahuku, a 57-40 win by the Red Raiders, seemed like it was going to be duplicated today. Instead, the Mustangs are now on an eight-game win streak. The rookies have become resourceful. The ball moves without extended stoppage. The Mustangs don’t settle for an unbalanced diet of 3-point shots. Their willingness to slash to the bucket, take contact and get to the line is what championship teams do.
By winning their last four games by margins of 5, 3, 3 and 2 points, Kalaheo has proven that they’ve turned the corner. With Kearney (10 points, five rebounds) pushing through a bad ankle sprain, Chiu stepped up and scored 21 points, effectively having no regrets. He was 3-for-10 from the arc before hitting that final, clutch trey. Without Kearney, getting layups from one of the league’s strongest slashers Kalaheo got what it needed from Chiu, Smith, Ryan Pardini (seven points, including one of their team’s four 3-pointers in the final quarter).
The win means Kalaheo earns a first-round bye at the state tourney, but the OIA is likely at the HHSAA seeding committee’s mercy now that previously unbeaten Kapolei and Kahuku were toppled. New ILH champion Maryknoll has been much more consistent this season; the Spartans are 13-6 against Top 10 teams. Kalaheo is 4-8 against Top 10 foes.
The second seeded league champion could be Lahainaluna, if the Lunas win the MIL title again. However, they are 1-5 against Top 10 teams, including a 47-38 loss to Kalaheo on Nov. 29.
There’s always the BIIF champion, which has yet to be determined. Kamehameha-Hawaii is unbeaten in league play and has, perhaps, the cleanest resume with losses only to Maryknoll (57-47), powerful Trinity Christian of Texas (80-65) and Sequoia (Calif.) 62-50. They’re 2-3 against ranked (or formerly ranked) teams.
The committee often relies on historical results more than current-season resumes, which means… your guess is good as mine. For now, Kalaheo has its second OIA title in the last three years under Pardini.