The OIA-ILH Challenge is underway, but let’s go back nearly a week, please.
On Saturday, the Konawaena Invitational concluded. Kalani completed a sweep of opponents with a 50-41 win over then-No. 4 Lahainaluna. The 3-0 run at Col. Ellison Onizuka Gymnasium began with a 66-54 win over host then-No. 2 Konawaena and a 60-51 victory over then-No. 7 Hilo. Maybe the highlight of the tournament was Thea Hanato-Smith‘s game-winning bucket to give the Alumni a 44-42 win over Konawaena’s varsity.
But the strength of girls hoops away from Oahu continues to be real. Three top 10 teams from the Big Island, all falling to a Kalani team that is making huge strides. Time is all Kalani needed, which is precisely what Kamalu Kamakawiwo‘ole said two weeks ago.
Lahainaluna’s tale for the 2018-19 season will be interesting once again. The Lady Lunas have dominated the Maui Interscholastic League for ages. The win streak is getting within range of 200. Yet, their best player, Susitina Namoa, couldn’t make it to halftime against Kalani. Namoa is supremely talented and skilled, a powerful force even at 5-foot-9. When the Lunas beat Kamehameha two weeks ago in the Black and Gold Classic, it was Namoa who was defensive wall in the low post against another great hoopster, Kalina Obrey.
But Namoa suffered an ankle injury. She already plays on a sore knee, what she once described as bone on bone. So, when the Lunas faced the Falcons, it was their third game in as many days. If there’s ever a question about the toughness of players in this generation, simply remind yourself of Susi Namoa.
One step for mankind
There is something otherworldly about St. Francis junior Kordel Ng. Like his older brother, Kameron, he is slight of build, cat-quick and tough as nails. What the eye doesn’t reveal is that Kordel Ng has superpowers. Last season, as a sophomore, he wowed audiences with his vertical leap, dunking on completely surprised mortals.
At 5-9, the lefty guard has been the perfect complimentary teammate to brother Kameron, a flat-out scoring machine. But Kameron hurt his ankle after scoring 13 points in one quarter against Kailua last week. The prognosis, according to his dad and Saints assistant coach, Kekoa, is 10 weeks for 100-percent recovery. While brother and dad coached from the bench on Thursday, St. Francis fell behind against host Moanalua at the OIA-ILH Challenge.
No Kameron, that’s one major weapon removed from the arsenal for head coach Ron Durant. A loss to a talented Moanalua squad with a 6-5 center (DiAeris McRaven), a smooth shooting guard (Geremy Robinson) and a solid point guard (Isaiah Sugiura) would be understandable.
The fifth-rank Saints, without Kameron Ng (25 points per game), have been good. They won that game against Kailua in overtime. Then they lost to ‘Iolani in the Surfrider Holiday Hoops Classic final. They seemed to be, like many other teams in the islands, a lineup of guards with a sprinkling of bigs.
Down 28-24 at the half, it was a respectable, if ordinary, showing. Kordel Ng had air-balled two 3-pointers. In fact, he was 2-for-7 with three turnovers in the first 16 minutes. The Saints have something that separates them from most smaller teams. Yes, Coach Durant dug deep into his bench and deployed some tall, lanky hustlers in the paint. CJ Guerrero, at 6 feet, and 6-3 Makua Marumoto brought their lunch pails and made a big difference when center Nalu Kanalulu sat with foul trouble. Guerrero and Marumoto combined for two points, three rebounds and three blocks.
That may seem pedestrian, but their length and energy were essential to St. Francis’ interior defense. Without them, No. 10-ranked Moanalua had wreaked havoc in the paint with their hustling bigs. So Guerrero and Marumoto helped St. Francis weather the storm.
Titus Liu was another major contributor, raining in three 3-pointers during the second quarter. He had already missed two shots from downtown, but Liu knows his role, and Moanalua didn’t completely nullify him — which is one of the many elements that activate when teams from different leagues meet. Unlike typical ILH versus ILH games and rematches, there aren’t a whole lot of players who know each other. Not Liu, at least.
St. Francis shot 3-for-14 in the first quarter, but didn’t shrink from the challenge.
“The shooters can’t get down on themselves. They have to keep their confidence up and keep firing. Titus stepped up big on his shots,” Ng said.
After halftime, Moanalua had no resistance against Ng. The Menehune tried, though. He soared in the lane for hanging layups, hit a 3 along the way, and scored 13 of his 28 points. By the end of the third, St. Francis had the lead, 44-41.
Kanalulu committed his fourth personal foul with 7 minutes left, but Liu launched an NBA-distance 3 and hit to open the Saints’ lead to 54-46 with 4:55 remaining. The most eye-popping play, however, was Ng’s drive into the paint, where the rangy McRaven awaited. Ng lifted off and glided to his left, drew contact and lofted the ball off the glass for the and-1 finish. He also had another drive, using his body to shield a defender at the rim, then scooping the ball up high off the window with a lot of English for another basically unstoppable basket.
“My mind-set is I can jump with him, so I’m trying to draw the foul and get to the free-throw line,” Ng said. “Kameron teaches me a lot. He’s always on me, pushing me to get better. He’s like a coach. That guy is crazy, working out with him.”
Ng’s 21 points in the second half were vital, of course. Moanalua cut the lead to 63-61 on Robinson’s drive, but got no closer. Chase Akana’s free throw extended the lead to three points with 11.4 seconds left, and after a missed 3 by the home team, Kanalulu’s foul shot with 3.4 seconds remaining put the game out of reach.
Kanalulu, a burly 6-2 junior, finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
“The guy has been stepping up lately. We expect big things out of him. He always goes hard,” Ng said. “They all go hard.”
St. Francis’ 65-61 win may have parallels to the OT victory at Kailua, but there’s one that the Saints hope doesn’t resurface. After the win over Kailua, they weren’t the same 24 hours later in the loss to ‘Iolani. They’ll have to dig deeper, possibly put more reserves to work.
Point guard Jett Tanuvasa, often bringing the ball up against fullcourt man pressure, did his job, committing only two turnovers. Tanuvasa, Liu, Akana, Ng — there’s not much depth beyond them in the backcourt. Thursday night’s game was done around 10:15 p.m. The have the normal routine at school, early morning to afternoon, then return to the Challenge today for a 5:30 matchup with a quick, scrappy Kapolei squad. The ‘Canes will be hungry and dangerous after Punahou.
“This is my favorite time of the year,” Kordel Ng said. “I love playing basketball. I’d play basketball games every day if I could, if it was available.”
It practically is. The OIA-ILH Challenge resumes today at 4 p.m. with ILH teams ahead 3-1 in the three-day tourney. Meanwhile, the ILH girls basketball universe has a major clash tonight when No. 5 Kamehameha visits No. 1 ‘Iolani.
Everybody go surf
Kailua’s 68-63 win over No. 8 Kamehameha on Thursday night was a showcase for one of the best 1-2 combinations in the state. Everett Torres-Kahapea’s old-school, pull-up jumper game was on full display. The senior finished with 22 points, no surprise there.
His 6-6 teammate, Isaiah Hopson, had a breakout night with 25 points and 11 rebounds. His versatility was a matchup issue for Kamehameha’s big posts. He hit a couple of threes during a major run and boosted the Warriors with a breakaway dunk. His ability to contribute in any way means Hopson is capable of much more. He began the game quietly and after his huge output of energy, seemed to tire out in the final quarter. But 25 points and 11 rebounds is yeoman’s work and Coach Walter Marciel will take it every time.
Though Kailua is unranked — the Surfriders lost to St. Francis and a fired-up Baldwin squad last week — they are clearly a team worthy of re-entering the Top 10.
Kamehameha played well in spurts, relying heavily on the ironman effort of Christmas Togiai. He finished with 20 points and 16 boards, running the point often in a performance that was more Fat Lever or Oscar Robertson than a typical, modern, no-contact swingman. The Warriors also got a lift from sophomores Oni Pung, Paliku Kamaka and Nawelo Rowland, who each connected from 3-land. Pung finished with seven points, all in the first half, in extended playing time. Kamaka finished with 13 points, hitting two huge 3-pointers in the third quarter with one of the purest shooting strokes in the tournament.
Their bigs include football linemen Lokahi Pauole and Bailey Lee, who fit well in the inside-out post offense installed by first-year Warriors head coach Larry Park. In a world where five-out sets are the norm, seeing the big men post — even Togiai scrambles to the block when his team needs points quickly and reliably — is quite refreshing.
With just four seniors — Kalani Kamakawiwo‘ole, Kaneen Muldrow, Hoku Arias and Pauole — and three sophomores, Kamehameha will need time to hit its stride. The bumpy path ahead — one Warrior was assessed with two technical foul in the second half — will eventually smooth out.
Seeing Kamehameha, ‘No. 4 Iolani, No. 2 Punahou and No. 5 St. Francis — the latter moved up to Division I this season — is appetizing enough. Then there’s Damien, a D-II program that is No. 1 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, and the potential of No. 9 Mid-Pacific, which took second at the James Alegre Invitational last week. There’s No. 3 Maryknoll, which is 5-0 and largely untested so far.
More than ever, ILH basketball, boys and girls, is a prep version of the old Big East Conference, or the current ACC. It would be worthy of a cable channel subscription. But ILH-vs.-ILH can wait. There’s still the next two days of the Challenge, plus the St. Francis Holiday Classic, the inaugural Kaimuki Invitational, the ‘Iolani Classic and Punahou Invitational.
Maybe Ng is right. This is a hoopster’s favorite time of year.