The two teams couldn’t be much more contrasting, which is why the Kaimuki Bulldogs and Kalani Falcons were mesmerizing to watch in Kaimuki’s 48-46 win on Friday night.
In one corner, the Falcons, the Floyd Mayweather of prep hoops in Hawaii. A deliberate, jab-and-dodge team that has been a mainstay in the OIA Division II playoffs and state tournament.
In the other corner, the Bulldogs, a wildly hot-and-cold squad that can accumulate buckets or head-scratching mistakes in bunches. The potency of Kaimuki’s explosive flurries is reminiscent of a fine knockout artist: Tommy “Hitman” Hearns.
“Our goal is to get to the Division I level next year,” Kaimuki coach Greydon Espinda said. “We go where we belong and these kids fight hard. They fight really, really hard. No complaining, no giving up, they’re always going to play hard.”
Kalani’s consistency keeps it in all games, where the margin for error is low. The Falcons were 6-1 coming into Friday night’s battle with neighbor and rival Kaimuki, winning a slew of close games. Mayweather by decision, again and again, no question.
Down 24-12 to the Bulldogs, the Falcons didn’t panic. In classic Les Murakami style, they waited for the other team to self-destruct. Kaimuki turned the ball over four times in a row during the final 1:22 of the first half, compounding the errors by fouling immediately on those giveaways.
Kalani cashed in with seven free throws to cut the lead to 24-19 at the half. That set the stage for four lead changes in the next nine minutes. When Kaimuki’s Malu Cleveland fouled out, again, early in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs faced their biggest test yet. Cleveland, their second-leading scorer and top rebounder, watched from the bench as the young Bulldogs faced a much more experienced Kalani group in the final minutes.
“It’s a great thing. It shows we can play with him in foul trouble. Yes, we’d love to have him on the court, but sometimes it cannot be helped. He struggled tonight, but everybody else stepped it up,” Espinda said. “They believe in themselves and they can go pretty far. It’s a great win against a great team. That’s a good team right there.”
The sophomores came through. Jeremiah White scored six of his 10 points in the final quarter, including a clutch foul shot with 18.3 seconds left to open the lead to 48-44. White, a 6-foot-1 multi-sport athlete, was a key cog in Kaimuki’s press breaker.
Harmon Sio, a 6-5 sophomore, finished with six points, and two of his buckets sparked key runs by the Bulldogs.
“He’s getting there. We tell him to keep it simple this year and next year we’ll add the bells and whistles, but all we want this year is to keep it simple,” Espinda said.
Kalani’s core of seniors executes coach Noa Hussey’s game plan to the tee. Shot selection is crucial, and the Falcons got their high-percentage looks. The Mayweather analogy is a bit of a stretch, but patient, surgical offense takes discipline — the very thing that their foes on Friday night lacked at times.
Those times were in the second and third quarters, when the roller-coaster Bulldogs couldn’t string together enough plus plays on both ends. But something evolved in the ‘Dogs during the fourth period as they solved Kalani’s 2-2-1 press.
Kaimuki fans were loud and constant, out-cheering the home audience throughout the night. Were Kaimuki fans the spark that made the difference after the disqualification of Cleveland? Possibly. Having spectators in gyms again has brought spirit and verve back to Hawaii high school basketball. Some gyms are still relatively quiet, but for the school in view of Diamond Head crater, there’s a spot that ever calls, and their fans called out with volume.
For now, Kaimuki boys basketball is on the upswing at 5-4 in OIA East play, one game behind Kalani (6-3). Senior Rashawn Fritz-Betiru came through again with 17 points and sophomore guard Daysen Lupica hit a key floater in the paint down the stretch.
It wasn’t pretty, just pretty amazing for Bulldog fans. They’ll have two more regular-season games before the OIA Division II playoffs. They are watching a team capable of beating anyone on a given night, or losing to any foe on any night. Down the road, a potential OIA D-II title is visible. Then, perhaps, a shot at some of the state’s top D-II squads — Kapaa, Maui Prep and defending state champion Kohala. None have clinched state-tournament berths yet, but none have lost a game yet, either.
>> Makiki Heights heartbreak for Moanalua
The volatility of a basketball season with a very short preseason has been the norm for a lot of teams, That includes Moanalua, which has been involved in a ton of blowout wins and losses.
On Friday night, Moanalua and Roosevelt were tied at 37 with 12 seconds left when the Rough Riders fouled a Moanalua player driving to the bucket.
“Really, I was hoping we would slide over and take a charge,” Roosevelt coach Steve Hathaway said.
Moanalua missed the front end of a one-and-one. Roosevelt advanced the ball to midcourt and called time out with 8 seconds left. Kayman Lewis, who had made a game-tying basket earlier, then ran through a double screen and curled up to the elbow.
“I had a feeling that they would switch and pop out. They were switching all night, I think the guy thought Kayman would pop out (to the 3-point line). Kayman did a good adjustment,” Hathaway said.
Kody Seguancia delivered the pass perfectly and Lewis hit the 16-footer. Officials put a half-second back on the clock, but the ensuing inbounds pass by Na Menehune was intercepted by Roosevelt center Kamuela Kaaihue.
“I thought they were going to put 2 seconds on the clock, but I think the guy taking out the ball hesitated to call time out,” Hathaway said. “Moanalua’s the kind of team that can beat anybody. They beat Kalaheo a couple weeks back, then there’s times they lose when I thought they should’ve won. They’re figuring it out. Brandon (Dumlao)’s doing a great job trying to turn the program around.”
The crowd was a factor, Hathaway said.
“The students, I give them credit, helping us late in the game. They were loud,” he said.
The win keeps Roosevelt (7-2) ahead of Kaiser (6-3) in the OIA East D-I standings. Both teams trail the unbeatens, Kahuku (9-0) and Kailua (8-0). Even with a 65-40 loss to Kailua on Friday, Kalaheo (5-3) can work its way up to fourth place or higher. The Mustangs will play Kaiser in their regular-season finale next week.
At 4-5, Moanalua already has a playoff berth secure thanks to a potential tiebreaker win over last-place McKinley. When the week began, Na Menehune were on a three-game win streak, but losses at Kaimuki and Roosevelt have neutralized that momentum. The roster has stabilized for Moanalua and many teams since the onset of positive cases and protocols in December and January.
Six of the seven D-I teams in the East and West qualify for the playoffs. Close wins are nice. Close losses are lessons. Getting in is what matters, lottery style or not. The benefit of playing or coaching in the OIA is that there is no automatic state-tournament berth, unlike the ILH, which is one more open spot for the Cinderfellas of public-school prep hoops.
Here’s what the matchups would look like if the OIA boys basketball playoffs began today.
East 1 Kahuku, bye
East 1 Kailua, bye
West 1 Mililani, bye
West 2 Leilehua, bye
West 6 Nanakuli at East 3 Roosevelt
West 5 Radford at East 4 Kaiser
East 5 Kalaheo at West 4 Campbell
East 6 Moanalua at West 3 Kapolei
Kahuku’s chameleon nature is difficult to combat. Amari Westmoreland-Vendiola is a wing with range and proficiency, but can step into the lane and become Rodman 2.0 at any moment. Long, strong and quick, Kahuku’s man defense is elite. Defenders are interchangeable for the most part. Getting a second shot against Big Red is rare.
Kailua has balance and size. Sophomore Noa Donnelly, at 6-4, is an old-school banger with no frills. His ability to take up space in the paint and hit high-percentage shots is crucial, but his rebounding prowess is a game changer. Jonny Philbrick is another throwback, an uber-quick guard who can hit the mid-range J off the dribble.
Mililani’s fullcourt press has dismantled every foe in the OIA West. Guard Trey Lieb has a bevy of playmaking teammates. Of all the teams in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, No. 7 Mililani may be the most underrated. The Trojans routed Moanalua and Mid-Pacific in preseason, then lost to No. 1 Saint Louis 63-61.
At 9-0 in the West, Mililani’s margins of victory are profound: 34, 24, 15, 45, 40, 42, 42, 52 and 36. The closest game was a 48-33 win at Nanakuli. The Trojans host Kapolei on Tuesday in their regular-season finale.
>> Bonus shots: The gauntlet
The ILH boys basketball race is going well for No. 1 Saint Louis (7-1), which is inching closer to an automatic state-tournament berth. The Crusaders have kept momentum moving forward since going 13-0 a year ago in their exhibition season, followed by a strong showing in their summer league.
Saint Louis hosts Kamehameha this afternoon (5 p.m.) in a game that means just as much or more to the Warriors. Kamehameha is 5-4 and part of a logjam in the standings. Punahou (6-3), ‘Iolani (6-3), Maryknoll (5-3) and Kamehameha (5-4) are in a gauntlet battle royal for that second spot. Not that Saint Louis is taking anyone lightly. With four games left on the regular-season schedule, three more wins would clinch first place for the Crusaders.
“It’s a brutal road for everyone,” Saint Louis coach Dan Hale said. “You have to have your A-game ready every day. You can’t look past your next opponent. In the end, you are going to have some very good teams left out of the (state) tournament. It’s sort of a one-week tournament before the ILH tournament.”
Maryknoll visits dangerous Mid-Pacific (2-7) tonight at Mills Gym. MPI upset Kamehameha last week.
Meanwhile, Hawaii Baptist outlasted Hanalani, 68-56, on Friday to clinch first place in ILH Division II, earning a state berth.
>> What If: Is Maui Prep the best team in the MIL?
The Maui Interscholastic League standings have Baldwin (7-1), Kamehameha-Maui (4-2) and Lahainaluna (5-3) battling for supremacy in the D-I chase. In D-II, Seabury Hall (6-0) and Maui Prep (2-0) are the favorites. MPA won a one-day club tournament last spring with the MIL’s top D-I teams playing in club designation.
With the two divisions playing separate schedules, there is always the question of how the MIL’s best D-II teams would fare against the league’s traditional D-I powers. Maui Prep was ranked as high as No. 9 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10 early in the season.
MPA coach Zachary Bailey said he would be open to scheduling an exhibition game with Baldwin, currently ranked No. 9 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. Unlike MPA, though, Baldwin has a busier schedule.
“It’s unlikely. We have a bunch of games needed to make up for league play and states is at the ending of February,” Baldwin coach Cody Tesoro said.
The boys state tournament was moved up to an earlier date recently. The trickle-down effect has leagues starting and condensing their playoffs.
“We are getting a revised schedule sometime this week,” Tesoro said.