Grit is golden for state-tournament semifinalists

Saint Louis has the youngest rotation in the state tournament, but continues to win close games. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

In a season of vast parity and a plethora of very young teams, scar tissue is becoming the difference maker.

Coming into the Division I and II brackets in the Heide & Cook/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships, only three teams that qualified had perfect records during their regular seasons. Those teams, Mililani and Kailua, are now out of the running. So is Seabury Hall, which was 10-0 in MIL D-II. Mililani went 10-0 in the OIA West, then reached the league title game, where it lost to Campbell.

On Monday, Moanalua came to Mililani and ousted the Trojans, 60-56, in the opening round of the state championships.

On Wednesday, Kailua, which was 10-0 in the OIA East, fell behind by 17, rallied within three, and lost to top-seeded Saint Louis, 51-48.

Moanalua’s buildup of scar tissue came with 10 losses through preseason, regular season and the playoffs. It says a lot about Na Menehune’s resilience. Instead of heads down, coach Brandon Dumlao’s team found ways to correct mistakes, to build rather than crumble. Was it worth the 10 losses?

“Absolutely,” Dumlao said. “It really helps teams believe in themselves. When you have those road blocks or bumps in the road. You have to figure out how to overcome things. It tests your mind. How do you problem-solve through adversity?”

Game to game, the swings in momentum were constant.

“We’ve gone through many games where we’ve gone down big to start and after coming back in the first one. It built the belief in the guys that it’s possible to get back in it. Losing to the top two teams in the East to begin league play really tested our psyche. Everything we’ve gone through this season is definitely life lessons the boys will take with them forever,” Dumlao said.

Meanwhile, Kailua’s impeccable regular-season run was followed by a 51-49 loss to Campbell in the OIA semifinals. The Surfriders’ third-place finish and the ensuing pairings for the state tournament were not easy to digest. Saint Louis regularly double-teamed playmaker Jonny Philbrick, who finished with 19 points in the close quarterfinal loss.

After enduring five losses, Campbell ran the table in the playoffs and earned the customary opening-round bye before playing OIA fifth-place finisher Kahuku — no easy draw. Campbell edged Kahuku, 43-40, on Wednesday.

“Losing when it happens is never a good feeling,” Campbell coach Wyatt Tau said. “But when you feel it, you use it as an extra motivation to work harder and stay focused so it doesn’t happen again. Losing is only meaningful if you dust yourself off and learn from it.”

OIA runner-up Mililani lost to OIA sixth-place team Moanalua. OIA fourth-place finisher Leilehua lost at Maryknoll on Monday. Tough matchup for any team, facing a Maryknoll squad that lost in the ILH championship in overtime.

OIA 5 Kahuku went to Konawaena, won 52-35, then lost to Campbell in a thriller Wednesday.

So It is, as usual, that the OIA and its six teams get a wide variety of matchups. Leilehua’s fate was to play a unseeded Maryknoll team that is No. 2 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. Mililani faced the OIA 6 and then would played the lowest of the seeded teams, KS-Hawaii. On paper, at least, that’s a less difficult path than the route set for Campbell. Mililani would have played two unranked teams, while Campbell had a major battle with Kahuku, ranked No. 9.

Rankings don’t pertain to state-tournament seedings and pairings, but when half the field is from one league (OIA), and the field is 12 teams deep rather than a square eight or 16, nothing is seamless. The only true antidote is to play your best basketball on the big stage, at the big dance. Which brings it back to scar tissue. Moanalua had to look in the mirror after each of those 10 losses, and either fold or fight back.

The same goes with Saint Louis, which had a freshman, three sophomores and a junior on the court for much of the game. Whether their losses were in the ILH gauntlet or against the likes of the nation’s top team (Montverde), the Crusaders stuck to the blueprint. They still haven’t played their best game, but the count of rookie mistakes continues to decline. After thousands of reps through spring, summer and fall league games and practices, then the sting of three regular-season losses, Saint Louis has something that few other teams has.

“It’s important to have. It’s all about experience,” said Crusaders coach Dan Hale, who has three state titles as a player and two crowns as a coach. “Gaining experience from early losses can be a valuable learning experience. That’s the ILH schedule for you. Every other night, tough games for a month.”

Maryknoll knows scar tissue well after losing seven games, like Saint Louis. Four of those defeats were at the hands of the Crusaders.

“All I can say is this is the most parity in a state tournament in years,” said Maryknoll coach Kelly Grant, who has three state championships.

Campbell lost just once during the regular season, but that combined with four preseason losses gave the Sabers every chance to develop a patient halfcourt offense and a stellar halfcourt defense.

It is not good, not better to lose often, but it isn’t much better to peak early and be left to adjust, adapt and improve just days before state tournament. Coaches don’t get to choose when their teams hit their ceilings. Kohala was unofficial BIIF overall champion last year, closing the regular season with the best record in the combined schedule.

The Cowboys started strong in preseason. After wins over Hawaii Prep (50-25), Seabury Hall (54-35), Kapaa (56-34), a close loss to Saint Louis (45-42) and a win over eventual KIF champion Kauai (48-46), Kohala was 4-1. Then came the long drive to Ka‘u in the BIIF season opener. The Trojans shocked the defending D-II state champions, 68-59.

That’s quite a ride home after the game, which was played at Keaau High School. That’s two-plus hours on a school bus to contemplate the unexpected.

“Our loss to Ka‘u definitely woke up my boys. Ever since then they’ve been a different team,” Kohala coach Kihei Kapeliela said.

Their mental toughness was required on Wednesday when Kalani opened with a 24-10 lead in their D-II state quarterfinal battle. Playing on the Falcons’ home court, the Cowboys rallied before the half.

“They’re a physical team. We pressed and ran away in the second half,” Kapeliela said.

Seabury Hall had a fairly tough preseason, traveling to the Kapaa Invitational. But there wasn’t a tough field in MIL D-II play, and the Spartans lost to Hawaii Baptist, 63-62.

HBA was 11-2 in ILH play, but also had a busy preseason — 8-10 against mostly D-I competition. 18-12 overall, with ample opportunities to heal up from those wounds. Scar tissue to the max.

Was it worth enduring 12 losses?

“Oh yes, absolutely. We definitely learned from each loss. Sometimes we had to relearn lessons, multiple times, but it made us better as a team overall and prepared us,” Eagles coach Kellen Kaneshiro said. “We have a very resilient group of guys.”

HBA plays top seed Kohala tonight in the D-II semifinals.

“In the regular season, you play who your league tells you to play. You have no control over that,” Kaneshiro said. “In the preseason, you can sort of pick and choose your opponents based on availability. For us, we wanted to take a tough road and take on a challenge. Obviously, you can tell by our preseason record that we took our lumps, but I think it made us a better team in the long run. We played a lot of talent, both on the D-I and D-II side, a lot of which made the state tournament.”

Physical endurance plus resilience give the Eagles a chance. They are peaking.

“Although our preseason record isn’t much to brag about, we definitely learned from playing strong competition, and I think it made us tougher as a team. There were a lot of games in the preseason I thought we should have won, but lost,” Kaneshiro said. “Ultimately, it gave us that scar tissue and helped us fight through our regular season and into the state tournament.”


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