In three short years, the Lahainaluna Lunas have transformed from a competitive program to a Division I elite-level squad.
Coach Jason Justus drew up the play on Friday afternoon against ‘Iolani during a third-place game at the Snapple/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships. Final seconds, ‘Iolani up 58-57. Steven Kama sets the off-ball screen for Cley Joseph Palma in the left corner, and Iverson Turno delivers the perfect pass. Corner 3, splash. Lahainaluna wins 60-58, capping a remarkable tournament that included a 28-24 halftime lead over ILH champion Punahou in the semifinal round. Punahou rallied for a 54-47 win to advance.
On paper, Lahainaluna was seeded third in the state tourney and ‘Iolani, the ILH runner-up, was unseeded. But in the eyes of voters, ‘Iolani was ranked No. 3 and Lahainaluna was No. 4. The Lunas reached the semifinal round for the first time since 1957, and like the ’57 team, this year’s squad placed third.
“I’m proud of my boys. They gave everything they had last night (against Punahou). The mental toughness it takes to wake up and play another powerhouse team,” Justus said. “In the first half, we played for fun. We played everybody and ‘Iolani played everybody.”
The Lunas finished 24-2 (10-0 MIL) taking Punahou to the hilt and knocking off defending state champion ‘Iolani. They did it the old-fashioned way, learning a system and putting in the extra effort during the offseason. From Turno to Tavaki Faleta to Jefferson Locke to Palma to Kama, up and down the roster, Justus has built what could be a dynasty for years to come at Lahainaluna.
“It’s a testimony to how much they want to buy in to being successful. Teaching that great things happen when you work hard,” he said.
That effort included month-long stays in California where the team trained in the summers. Preseason trips to Oahu. The bar kept rising. The athleticism of the Lunas has always been there, but it was the defensive intensity and footwork against Punahou that really stood out, even in defeat.
“Our first offense is our defense,” Justus said. “It’s my seniors. They were sophomores when I came in. Watching them grow and compete and be successful, that’s the sweat of the brow. It paid off.”
The only question left at season’s close: Will Justus be back next season?
He didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no. He just kept moving forward.