Clutch Gene: Makoa Nakamura’s buzzer-beater lifts Leilehua over ‘Iolani

The Leilehua Mules are 5-1 after a 47-46 thriller over ‘Iolani. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

Chad Townsend doesn’t want to hear about status or perceptions.

For the Leilehua boys basketball coach, all that matters is the next game on Saturday.

“We got Saint Louis,” Townsend said on Friday afternoon after the Mules edged ‘Iolani 47-46.


Landyn Jumawan led a balanced scoring attack with 11 points. Nick Cheung splashed six 3-pointers and finished with 20 points to lead ‘Iolani, which has lost three close nonconference games in the past week.

True, there’s a lot to digest in a tourney like the OIA-ILH Challenge, particularly for a promising team like Leilehua. Makoa Nakamura’s drive from halfcourt began with 7 seconds on the clock. When the buzzer sounded, the pass-first point guard had sliced through two defenders in the pain, hung in the air and finger-rolled in a soft bucket off the glass.

“I’m a little bit (surprised). Game winners aren’t my thing,” the senior said. “We’ve been the underdog already. We could have the targets on our backs now.”

The play was designed to set up a shot on the left wing or corner, but the sea parted for Nakamura, who had scored just two points prior to the game-winner.

“We drew it up. (Nakamura scoring) was pretty much one of the last options. He heard us say, ‘Go!’ And he just made a play,” Townsend play. “Truthfully, that was all the players. We haven’t worked on that kind of situational stuff yet this early in the season. Even the shot before that, the pass to Aviel (Palmer), that was supposed to be a flare screen on the other side. They lost containment and Aviel got open. That’s our players making those plays.”

The Mules erupted in celebration off the bench as time expired. No pile-ons. No tears. No kneeling in thanks. Preseason is preseason, but they’re making a bold statement in early December. The Leilehua Mules are underdogs no more.

At 5-1, their only loss came against Damien, a team that could be in the Top 2 when the first boys basketball poll of the season is released. The Mules are in boss mode from the start of warmups until the final second, relishing the chance to play physical man defense. Townsend has a relatively tall, athletic and long group of defenders.

“We got really lucky with this group of kids. They came in and bought into uptempo, hard man-to-man defense. Whatever kind of defense we want to call, they’ve bought in from the beginning. This is a very hard-working group of kids,” Townsend said.

He also gives many of them the green light to run with pace and launch open 3s. It starts with defense.

“We really preach that, if anything, if they don’t shoot the ball when they’re open, we take them out. No one gets out of control. They like to share the ball,” Townsend said. “They’re all close friends, you know. You see it the way they play.”


That belief in their shooting ability isn’t temporary. The Mules ran against Mid-Pacific — a strong, balanced squad that has been very competitive in preseason — and won 62-54 on Thursday. On Friday, they came out shooting a bit cold, but never lost confidence.

“We like to really preach that if you’re open in your area, go for it,” Townsend said.

The exceptions are obvious. Palmer is as close as Leilehua has to a rim protector and role player. At roughly 6 feet, 3 inches, his job is to set screens and distribute. With four long-range shooters around a teammate like that, there’s plenty of spacing for all.

It’s not easy to find a weakness in this team, which is why the Mules are rapidly rising as a possible favorite to win the West, and perhaps the OIA Division I title.

“Underdogs or not, or target on our back, we just tell our players, ‘Go out there and play your hardest.’ We know that ‘Iolani just got some of their players back. Young team and they’re well-coached. Coach Ryan (Hirata) is great. Mid-Pac, another team well-coached. They’re getting of their players’ feet wet. It’s still early,” Townsend said.

And yet, he and his staff wouldn’t mind seeing their Mules take on the rest of the state’s best teams. That could well happen in time. The Mules have a high ceiling with the combination of length and shooters and defense-first mentality.

“We’ve got some coaches who were gunners in high school, so they preach that to the kids, as well,” Townsend added.

Just about every transition opportunity turned into a field-goal attempt in seven seconds or less. The Mules aren’t just a good basketball team. They’re real entertainment.

Just don’t call them favorites.

Mid-Pacific 40, Kahuku 29
Elijah Kahue-Parker dominated the paint and finished with 11 points as the Owls pulled away in the final quarter. Daniel Kaio led the Red Raiders with eight points.

Kalaheo 62, Saint Louis 40
The Crusaders stayed close and were within 38-35 entering the final quarter before the Mustangs rode away, outscoring Saint Louis 24-5. Kanoa Smith and Anthony Caswell led Kalaheo with 15 points. Luke Pardini tallied 14.

Kahaku Marquez paced Saint Louis with 18 points even though the tall, lanky post seemed to hesitate at times to shoot.


Maryknoll 52, Moanalua 47
Free throws by Niko Robben in the final seconds helped the defending state champion Spartans seal a tough victory over the home team. Robben, showing much more explosiveness and lift at the rim this season, led Maryknoll with 18 points. Sage Tolentino added nine points and Liko Soares tallied seven.

Tolentino often went head-to-head against Moanalua’s 6-5, jumping-jack senior, DiAeris McRaven. The two-sport standout had 18 points and junior guard Geremy Robinson finished with 12 despite an injured thumb and an injured wrist.

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