Elijah McGruder’s MVP night sparks OIA in huge comeback win over ILH

Geremy Robinson presented Moanalua's Elijah McGruder with the MVP award in the Hawaii Senior Classic after his double-double helped the OIA beat the ILH. Photo by Steven Erler/Special to the Star-Advertiser.

There are a multitude of great plot lines following the OIA/public schools’ 94-87 comeback win over the ILH/private schools in the Hawaii Senior Classic on Saturday at Moanalua.

The most surprising, though, is Elijah McGruder. Moanalua’s blue-collar banger was never the tallest or biggest, but he was often very effective in the paint as his team won the OIA title. But that was as a classic role player. On Saturday, McGruder exploded for 21 points and 10 rebounds, scoring 17 points in the second half as the OIA rallied from a 49-31 deficit for the victory.

“It could’ve gone either way,” said McGruder, who swished two crucial 3-pointers during the comeback. “We just came out here to have fun.”

Listed generously at 6 feet, 4 inches, McGruder went up against Punahou’s 6-foot-9 Jordan Hepting and 6-foot-7 Damien senior Bryce Forbes, among others, in the trenches. His 3 from the right win tied the game at 53 with 13:05 left. After Nainoa Peters of Kailua sank a 3 from the left side, the OIA had its first lead at 68-66 with 7:30 remaining.

“I don’t know. I know I can hit the 3, but I never did. I felt it today, so I kept shooting it,” McGruder said. “We didn’t plan anything. We came out here to have fun.”

The ILH stayed close and was within 80-76 when McGruder caught a kick-out from Kia‘i Apele and splashed a right corner 3 with 2:55 to go. Moments later, he scored inside on a feed from Pearl City’s Malosi Viena, giving the OIA an 85-78 lead. The ILH got buckets from Kamehameha’s Kordel Ng — eight points during a 9-2 run that brought the ILH within 88-87 with 35 seconds left — but got no closer than one point.

Viena’s free throws pushed the lead to 92-87, icing the win in the final seconds.

McGruder averaged less than double-digit points during the season, which makes this, arguably, his best game ever.

“I would love to have him on our team,” said Apele, the standout playmaker from Waiakea. “Yes, I would love to. He’s a hard work. He commits on the defensive end. Grabs rebounds. That’s all you want. Much respect for his game.”

Apele finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two steals. He was the go-to ballhandler for the OIA down the stretch. When the defensive pressure mounted, his teammates looked for him. He had just two turnovers and played the most minutes with Kahuku center Oscar Cheng sidelined by an injury suffered during the state tournament. Apele was also winner of the boys 3-point contest, edging Kamana Lapina of Mid-Pacific.

Peters, who finished with 21 points and four rebounds, was consistent from the start. His 6-foot-4 frame and ability to attack the rim and hit from mid-range gave the OIA one too many scorers for the ILH to handle.

“Coach (Michael Johnson) said just push the ball, run, pace, pass the ball, move without the basketball. Just play basketball. Just have fun. Play relaxed. It’s an all-star game. You want to go out there and have fun, and compete. We kind of got away from that in the first half, and we got back to it in the second,” Peters said. “As public schools, we always have a chip on our shoulder. It’s our hometown school. It’s not just the name on our chest. It’s about the community surrounding the school and the people we play for.”

The Kailua senior plans to play at Orange Coast Community College, or possibly walking on at UH-Hilo — which Apele recently signed with. His high school career closed with a pass from old pal Kanoa Smith of Kalaheo for a game-ending slam dunk.

“That’s my boy. I’ve been playing with him since seventh grade,” Peters said. “We’ve always told each other, I was trying to get him to come to Kailua. It is what it is. I have just as much competing as I do playing with him.”

Malosi Viena, the underdog hero who overcame a multitude of health issues to become one of the state’s leading scorers, finished with eight points. All of those came in the second half as he battled past a tough start. He hit his first bucket on a follow shot in the second half during the OIA’s rally.

“I just had to keep playing defense,” the 6-2 Pearl City senior said.

His oldest brother, Bulla, was on the ILH bench assisting Robert Shklov.

“I wanted to win, you know. Rob said he had a little game plan (for Malosi), but he had a rocky start. The whole family came out, so I think he was feeling a little bit of pressure,” Bulla said. “But he figured it out in the end. They had a good team. He had a lot of help.”

Ng, of Kamehameha, led the ILH with 23 points and was the slam dunk champion. Zion Kese of P.E.M. (Peniel Educational Ministries) added 17 including two treys and a ferocious dunk in traffic. Forbes tallied 16 points and Lapina scored 12, all on 3-pointers.

Forbes won the one-on-one contest for “King of the Court” honors.


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