There’s the 6-foot-6 kid who has that pep in his step again, lifting Punahou to a seriously clutch road win.
There’s the other 6-6 kid, a Wes Unseld clone from Maui now playing for Saint Louis, his dream of a weekend trip home completely obliterated.
But first, there was Noa Purcell, on the floor in front of the Saint Louis bench as the buzzer sounded.
It was Tuesday night and the first-place Saint Louis Crusaders had lost to host Kamehameha 71-70 at Kekuhaupio Gymnasium, denying first-place Saint Louis a chance to claim an automatic state-tournament berth. Purcell was on his knees, head down to the floor as if praying for those last 3.1 seconds to change. It was then when Kamehameha senior Fatu Sua-Godinet hit a free throw to give the Warriors the lead.
Sua-Godinet, injured for much of the football season and battling back in time for the basketball season, had come to grips with a reduced role. But in crunch time, coach Greg Tacon trusts his heady swingman as much as anyone.
Fast-forward two nights. Now it’s Saint Louis at home with another chance to seal the regular-season title and that coveted, automatic state-tournament berth. Purcell has bounced back big, scoring 20 points in a regular-season finale against Punahou.
Again, it’s another senior who had suffered through injuries, ‘Akahi Troske of Punahou, who is coming up huge in a clutch game. The 6-foot-6 senior is not just back on the court, but he’s got that spring back. The spring that makes him a formidable blocker on the volleyball court. Yep, it’s THAT ‘Akahi Troske who is back for real now: 16 points in his most important game.
Punahou wins its fifth game in a row, derailing Saint Louis’ chance to nab that state berth, taking the game 70-66.
” ‘Akahi is actually still not 100 percent,” Punahou coach Darren Matsuda said. “He’s getting better. He’s a warrior. He keeps it simple and he’s a great leader.”
As Troske has recovered, as Jared Lum returned from a meniscus injury, as the youthful Buffanblu learned to play the odds better, it has all come together. Punahou posted a fifth win in a row, stunning Saint Louis and forcing a four-way tie atop the ILH standings as the regular-season closes. Sorta.
By Friday morning, the ILH will draw matchups to break this four-way tie. Win this Saturday/Monday mini-tournament, and either ‘Iolani, Kamehameha, Punahou or Saint Louis will fetch the prize. For the three teams that come up short, it’s almost not even worth it. By Tuesday, with no significant rest time, two of those three teams will be engaged in the ILH playoff tournament. The fifth- and sixth-place teams, Maryknoll and Mid-Pacific, might actually be better off. Better rested, at least.
The three-day ILH playoff tourney might not be the end of it. If the regular-season winner and playoff tourney winner are two different teams, there will be an ILH championship game at the end of the week.
There are a lot of games ahead for most of the league. Punahou may be the most well-equipped for a marathon.
“You could play five games in one week. It’s crazy,” Matsuda said. “We decided to this with all 15 (players). Everyone’s playing more mature and unselfish. Besides our 2012 team, this is the first team we’ve had like this.”
Crazy is tiring, all right.
“A four-way tie, that’s crazy,” Saint Louis center Tristan Nichols said after a 16-point, eight-rebound effort.
His plans for a little R&R just got shredded. He asks when the tiebreaker tourney will begin.
“Saturday? Oh, so I can’t go home this weekend,” said Nichols, who transferred to Saint Louis from Maui High in the offseason.
“In the first round, we were beating teams by 3, 5 points. Now it’s flipped around,” the 6-6 senior said.
Nichols was understandably “exhausted” by game’s end. Imagine how Jaymason Nunuha feels. The junior guard scored 16 points and was blanketed from beginning to end. With guards Zach Choo and Jett Tanuvasa seeing less playing time, the burden of handling the ball against Punahou’s man defense — the Buffanblu basically junked their fullcourt press for the night — fell on Nunuha. With a sore right calf that has been heavily taped all week, Nunuha was limited to six points on 2-for-5 shooting in the second half.
All that was so promising just two days ago has become a nightmare for the Crusaders. The thought of Nunuha having to possibly play five or six games in eight days isn’t ideal. But as everyone in the ILH knows, with struggle comes desperation, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Desperation, the mother of invention. And in the gauntlet of ILH boys basketball season, and especially with Punahou, you evolve or you don’t.