Here’s the longer version of this morning’s story in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
He cradled it.
He clutched it.
He would not let it go. The HHSAA state championship trophy, in all its koa glory, looked right at home in the long arms of Kupaa Harrison.
Minutes after the Kalaheo Mustangs held off ‘Iolani for a 53-45 title victory, the ceremony was done, photos were pau and all that was left was to cut the net.
Harrison preferred to wait. Someone had to keep that trophy company.
He got his first taste of state-championship ecstasy two years ago as a role player for the Kalaheo Mustangs.
“That year, I was kind of a background character to those other leaders. This year, it was me and Kaleb’s team as leaders. I feel like I contributed so much more,” he said, referring to sharpshooting guard Kaleb Gilmore.
Kalaheo basketball, in its most grounded ways, is still rooted in the years of legendary coach Pete Smith.
Even some of the drills, son Alika Smith says, are holdovers from the 1980s. But on Saturday night, there were a few basic things the Mustangs do that were far from traditional.
Their 53-45 win over ‘Iolani for the Division I boys basketball state title capped a 31-3 season. Kalaheo was old school in most basic sense on Saturday. The Mustangs shot 81 percent from the free-throw line, led by Kaleb Gilmore’s epic 18-for-20 effort.
This all came two nights after the OIA third-place team routed top-seeded Punahou, sinking 31 out of 39 free-throw attempts. On that night, Gilmore was 16-for-17 despite sitting nearly half the game with foul trouble. He came through in the clutch and he came through on defense. In the span of one year, Gilmore went from being a volume scorer at Maryknoll to becoming an efficient dual weapon, adding better decisions as an on-ball defensive force. He did it on under the biggest spotlight with an ankle that was “60 percent.”
“I had to push through,” Gilmore said. “I’m happy. I waited four years for this. I came to Kalaheo. Coach mentored me and built me up. He told me that I have other people on the team. I don’t have to worry about scoring or anything else, just play my game and let it come to me.”
The versatility of Harrison flipped the script in a startling, but seamless way. He ran the offense, with the help of well-trained teammates, of course, in a way that he never had to. On Thursday, they spread the court with the 6-5 Harrison at the point — in the second quarter.
The move bought Smith some time as Gilmore sat with three first-half fouls, and Kalaheo not only survived, they protected that lead until Gilmore returned in two second-half stints to help ice the upset win.
Then, on Saturday, Harrison stepped up while Gilmore labored with an injured right ankle. Sixteen rebounds, five assists and his fingerprints on just about everything Kalaheo did right. Handling fullcourt pressure, sideline traps, using the most timely and precise bounce passes to thwart ‘iolani’s elite defense. Over and over again, he beat defenders on drives to the key, sending more passes to teammates like Alec MacLeod for layups.
There simply hasn’t been a 6-5 playmaker like this, completely engrossed in efficient, high-percentage offense, in recent memory.
“That’s how unselfish he is. At the end of the day, that kid is so smart that you just let him go,” Coach Smith said. “He’s smart enough to know the situation, the time and the possession. And he played excellent defense.”
For Kalaheo’s coach, the thread that carries through new players and those rooted in generations at Kalaheo simply stirs and satisfies.
“Kaleb came over. I’m just very happy for him that he can leave his legacy with a championship. My career, I never had one. My nephew (Kekai) has two. Kupaa has two now. My son (Jalen) has one. It’s a family affair, and these families are such a tight-knit group,” Smith said.
Every Mustang on the court in these four wins from unseeded territory to the title throne had this in common: all played good to great defense. Even Jalen Smith, the lean 6-5 freshman, who had never played anything but guard and occasionally forward as a middle schooler. His growth spurt, growing roughly 6 inches in just two years, thrust him into the heart of Kalaheo’s defense.
But aside from the versatility and clutch play of the Mustangs, Kalaheo’s sixth state crown was fortified by incoming gifts. Harrison was at ‘Iolani in middle school, but when his financial aid package was reduced — he was just 6 feet by the end of eighth grade — he and his family decided stay home and attend Kalaheo.
Imagine the ‘Iolani teams of the past three years with Harrison. Though he and Raiders coach Dean Shimamoto acknowledge that everything worked out for the best, at the time of the move, Harrison was very young and very stunned.
Gilmore was at Maryknoll until his junior year was over. Despite success there — the Spartans reached last year’s state final with eventual all-state player of the year Josh Burnett raising the intensity on defense — Gilmore couldn’t help enjoying a return to teammates and friends he’d known since he was a kid playing youth hoops in Kailua.
The theme of this year’s big dance, by and far, was the widespread parity that was exemplified by the four losses taken by all four seeded teams — league champions — in the quarterfinal round. But the other theme could be this: how transfers uplifted their new teams. Campbell thrived with 6-7 David Marrero, a mainland transfer. Kahuku catapulted to a new level with New Zealand transplants Denhym Brooke, Hyrum Harris and Tama Green. Farrington was energized by the arrivals of Jake Smith (Kamehameha), and Ranan Mamiya and Keola Kealoha (St. Francis).
Kalaheo had more than just Harrison and Gilmore arriving at different times from other campuses. Alec MacLeod, who scored 13 points in the championship game, started out at Le Jardin. As it was with the football season, when top programs reached new levels thanks in part to transfers.
The core, though, is Windward based. Harrison, like Gilmore, grew up playing on that side of the island, though many of their friends wound up at private schools in Honolulu.
The friendships grew even more this year while the Mustangs were perched at No. 1 in the Top Ten through the regular season. But the rare stumbles were understandable — and maybe necessary for their growth as a team.
At 9-0, preseason was going along relatively smoothly with all of their new arrivals until consecutive losses to McKinley and Farrington. Injuries were part of the challenge — Harrison’s ankle never healed all season because he kept playing as much as possible.
After those losses, they won their next 16 games. It was a long, three-day weekend of team outings and bonding time when the Mustangs seemed to have hit a wall. They returned from the holiday weekend to play Farrington again — this time in the OIA semifinals — and were a step slower than usual, and never recovered in a surprising 60-58 overtime defeat.
Whether it was that late-season wall, fatigue, lack of sleep or all of the above, the Mustangs had to regroup. It seems that Farrington had that effect on teams it beat in the playoffs — Campbell, Kalaheo and Kahuku all got much better. Fast. Within two weeks, all three of those teams were in the final four of the state tournament, though the Governors were not.
Kalaheo may not have needed any extra motivation, but Smith continued to raise the bar. Kekai Smith, his nephew, was already a stellar defensive stopper, but came through with big contributions offensively during the state tourney, all on high-percenrage shots. MacLeod shifted between starting and sixth-man roles, but always finishing strong as a wing defender who played in the paint fearlessly — and fearlessly rained threes in transition.
The 2014-15 Kalaheo Mustangs weren’t the classic, traditional looking champion. They were, as the Kalaheo champs two years earlier were, a group of strong defenders with length, toughness and versatility. They almost never ran a basic post-up play, but a large number of their buckets were layups.
That makes it two state titles in three years for Coach Smith, who is building a legacy of his own, one that his late father would be proud of. In an era of transfers, 3-point bombs and five-out offenses, Alika Smith — the former All-WAC defensive pick — and his team took pride in the most basic of championship ingredients: defense.
That’s a simple byproduct of work ethic.
“The hard work that we put in as a staff, the hard work the kids put in each and every day, each and every summer, each and every fall, whatever league they’re in,” Smith said, “they know they’re going to reap the benefits.”