The shape of the 2020 boys basketball state final changed on Thursday night.
Maryknoll overpowered Kamehameha, 46-33, for the state championship on Friday, but the Warriors lost their glue guy on Thursday. When Christmas Togiai hit the deck with 2:20 left in a close battle with Kahuku, nothing would ever be the same for No. 1 Kamehameha.
Scorer. Long-range shooter. Arguably the toughest penetrator in the state. Knowledge. Skill. Courage. But none of it could bring the talented court leader back onto the court.
No. 2 Maryknoll already had plenty of motivation. The Spartans beat Kamehameha in preseason, but lost three times in the regular season and playoffs, all to the Warriors. Defending champions, yes, but they entered the Snapple/HHSAA State Championships as ILH runner-up, unseeded like the rest of the state’s first-round entries.
On top of that, Liko Soares was playing through pain, the kind that was a “12” on a scale of 0 to 10, he said. A partially-torn meniscus that needs surgery after the season — Soares played through it. An ACL, different story, different ending for Togiai and the Warriors.
“It’s huge. I couldn’t sleep last night because usually when I prepare for a team, I make one game plan,” Spartans coach Kelly Grant said. “But I had to make two. I didn’t know if Christmas was going to play or not. In the morning, I got word that he had a torn ACL. My heart goes out to the guy. Four years of tremendous basketball. It is what it is. It makes a big difference.”
Maryknoll senior Niko Robben felt for Togiai, who sat next to his coaches on the bench.
“We know Chris is a great player. He’s excellent defensively and offensively. Him being gone opened up a lot of things for us. I know he got injured yesterday and it’s pretty bad. I just hope he has a fast recovery so he has a good future,” Robben said.
After a 35-year hiatus between titles, Maryknoll (30-4) now has back-to-back championship trophies.
“The last title was really special to our school and our program because it was our first one in about 30 years,” Robben said. “To go back-to-back after losing five seniors, and four starting seniors, just shows how good coaching and good effort off the court, hitting the weight room can really pay off.”
Liko Soares 16 (7-7 FG). Sage Tolentino 10/16, 3 blocks as @MaryknollSports topples @KSKAthletics 46-33 for the Division I state title. Kordel Ng 14 for the Warriors, who played without Christmas Togiai (knee). @HawaiiPrepWorld pic.twitter.com/R9j9QyMJaQ
— Paul Honda (@PupulePaul) February 22, 2020
Kamehameha played its hearts out, limiting Maryknoll to 41-percent field goal shooting. The Warriors kept a lid on Robben, who finished with three points and seven rebounds. Kamehameha, however, had no scoring punch without Togiai. The Warriors shot 4-for-27 from the 3-point arc and 23 percent from the field overall (11-for-47).
With 7-foot sophomore Sage Tolentino playing his best basketball and protecting the rim like no other Hawaii hoopster in recent memory — he was selected the most outstanding player of the tournament — Kamehameha’s opportunities in the paint were limited and difficult.
“Coach (Larry) Park having to come up with a game plan 24 hours after knowing that his star player cannot play, that’s difficult,” Grant said.
Maryknoll put pesky, persistent defender Noah Furtado on the explosive Kordel Ng, and Ng finished with 14 points and five rebounds. He also shot 4-for-19 and was under duress from start to finish.
“We already played three or four teams this year where we take away one player, so it wasn’t something that was real difficult for us,” Grant noted. “If you watched Noah play defense last year, he couldn’t guard my grandmother. This year, because of all of his hard work and dedication, he became our best defender.”
Grant pulled Soares aside as the team cut the net down. They talked for a minute, maybe two, facing away from the crowd. Grant shook Soares’ hand. They hugged. Grant, as a player at Maryknoll, was a superb shooter and decision maker, but ran into knee injuries in college. Soares felt the appreciation.
“It hurts a lot,” he said of the meniscus injury. “I knew I was going to get back on the court no matter what. It’s my last year.”
Soares credited his mother, Lehua.
“It’s this Hawaiian leaf, and ice. I don’t know what it’s called, but my mom wraps it around my knee. It takes out all the bad blood,” he said.
The best medicine from day one, though, was the leadership of seniors Robben, Reggie Eiland and Soares. Eiland came up with three key plays, including standing strong to take a charge, and tipping a Kamehameha dribble out of bounds to stop a fast break. Three low-key elders guiding a team of talented, but relatively inexperienced new contributors.
“I was confident in this group. Last year, we were just bigger. This year, we have Sage, Niko and this coach right here,” Soares said, pointing to assistant coach and former player Payton Grant. “He had a big part in our team. As leaders, we did what we had to do, just guide them.”
Robben is hoping to attend Rice in the fall. After running the point as a junior, he embraced a new role as a primary scorer and attacker from the top and wing.
“It was a big role to step into after losing a lot of the seniors, but I had Parker (Grant) behind me to fill in as a distributor and make good passes, get people open, so that was really helpful,” Robben said.
Ultimately, climbing up the mountain week after week, day after day — chasing Kamehameha — did not frustrate the Spartans. They had each other to push and be pushed by.
“It’s about team bonding first of all. The team’s motivation and hunger, a hunger to win, a hunger to be aggressive. Reggie stepped us for us today and he did excellent,” Robben said.
HHSAA Division I State Tournament
|1||Feb. 17||Waiakea vs. Leilehua||Lei, 82-53||Waiakea|
|2||Feb. 17||Kahuku vs. Kaiser||Kah, 56-37||Kahuku|
|3||Feb. 17||Lahainaluna vs. Damien||DMS, 58-49||Lahainaluna|
|4||Feb. 17||Maryknoll vs. Kalaheo||Mryk, 49-41 (OT)||Maryknoll|
|5||Feb. 19||(1) Kamehameha vs. Leilehua||KSK, 72-43||McKinley|
|6||Feb. 19||(4) Baldwin vs. Kahuku||Kah, 64-53||McKinley|
|7||Feb. 19||(2) Moanalua vs. Damien||DMS, 64-57||Moanalua|
|8||Feb. 19||(3) KS-Hawaii vs. Maryknoll||Mryk, 61-32||Moanalua|
|9*||Feb. 20||Moanalua vs. KS-Hawaii||Moan, 73-61||Stan Sheriff Center|
|10*||Feb. 20||Leilehua vs. Baldwin||Bald, 73-54||Stan Sheriff Center|
|11||Feb. 20||Damien vs. Maryknoll||Mryk, 57-40||Stan Sheriff Center|
|12||Feb. 20||Kamehameha vs. Kahuku||KSK, 48-39||Stan Sheriff Center|
|13*||Feb. 21||Moanalua vs. Baldwin||Moan, 64-52||Stan Sheriff Center|
|14*||Feb. 21||Damien vs. Kahuku||Kah, 50-49||Stan Sheriff Center|
|15||Feb. 21||Maryknoll vs. Kamehameha||Mryk, 46-33||Stan Sheriff Center|
|* — consolation|