Just about anywhere, any time during playoff season, basketball games slow to a crawl, especially with two teams that know each other as University and Hawaii Baptist do.
The result on Saturday afternoon was a 47-38 win for University over HBA. With 16 points and 14 rebounds from center Leif Fautanu, the Jr. ‘Bows earned the second and final state-tournament berth out of ILH Division II. The HHSAA bracket, released immediately after the ULS-HBA game, has league champion Damien as the No. 1 seed. University will meet No. 3 seed Hawaii Prep, the BIIF champion, in a 5 p.m. quarterfinal on Thursday at St. Francis. The winner will meet the Farrington-Kauai winner on Friday night at Kalani.
University returns to the big dance for the first time since winning the crown in 2016. Fautanu was a freshman on that title team, a team that had swagger and was even a bit “cocky,” he recalled. This year’s squad isn’t as tall, or as experienced, but has an astounding amount of self-control with the game — and a state berth — on the line. The humility of the 2018-19 Jr. ‘Bows, Fautanu said, is an important trait, but he certainly doesn’t lack confidence.
“All the way. We always have that mindset of going all the way,” the 6-foot-2, 290-pound senior said.
The Jr. ‘Bows simply grinded out this crucial win with patient halfcourt offense against HBA’s mix of 2-3 matchup zone and perky version of a triangle-and-two zone designed to slow down Fautanu. University didn’t blink twice, maneuvering against the specialized defense with extreme caution. Fautanu and classmate Josh Awai combined for 13 offensive rebounds.
“I box out and get in position,” Awai said.
Awai, a 6-1 jumping jack, was virtually unstoppable on the glass in the second half. He finished with 10 points and nine boards against HBA, and will have his first taste of the state tourney on Thursday.
“I was on the JV (in ’16). We’ll come back to practice hard on Monday, set our mindset and get ready to play,” he said. “I’m a little excited.”
ULS coach Ryan Tong saw his team beat HBA in their first matchup while the Eagles played without leading scorer Max Wiemken, who was ill. In the rematch, Fautanu was busy at the Polynesian Bowl football game, and HBA pulled out an overtime win.
This time, Wiemken found very little room in the paint as Fautanu and Awai collapsed on him. Wiemken shot 4-for-10 from the field, including 1-for-5 from the 3-point arc. If he hits a couple of those long-range shots, it’s very possible the end result is different.
“HBA is like a cobra snake. They have the ability to come out and bite you, so we have to be methodical in the process,” Tong said.
ULS’ willingness to go old school in the final quarter was vital to the victory. In the first three quarters, the Jr. ‘Bows were 10-for-20 inside the 3-point arc and 1-for-12 beyond the stripe. In the final quarter, they didn’t bother taking a single 3, and wound up outscoring HBA 17-12. The Jr. ‘Bows were 2-for-6 from the field and 13-for-22 from the foul line. It all started with Fautanu, who was sandwiched by HBA’s intriguing mix of matchup zones, including a sticky triangle-and-two arrangement.
Fautanu’s court vision and discipline were crucial. He shot 6-for-10 from the field and was 4-for-5 at the charity stripe.
“I nicknamed LJ the “bull”, so we’re going to try to get as much out of him as you can,” Tong said. “We always want to get LJ the ball down low. If he’s not open initially, we’re going to move the ball around and try to penetrate, maybe kick, look inside every single time down, we want him to get him to touch the ball.”
Now, University advances to the Snapple/HHSAA D-II State Championships.
“We’re going to play our game. We’re going to rely on our strengths and be patient and execute because there’s a lot of good teams out there,” said Tong, now in his third year as head coach. “Farrington’s tough. Kaiser’s in there, too. We played Seabury Hall in the preseason, so we know what they’re all about and that was a close game. Hawaii Prep. We lost a close one to Kauai, so it’s going to be a dog fight. We’ve got to be ready. We’ll celebrate and enjoy this win, but we have to be ready to go back to work on Monday.”
The comparison to the ’16 squad is one of two almost entirely different teams. The one thing in common: the ’16 team and this year’s Jr. ‘Bows enter the state tourney as the ILH runner-up. Hong was the JV head coach at ULS that year.
“That team in 2016 was loaded. You had nine starters, which was a luxury. Lachlan (Macleod), (Ryan) Hobus, Anthony Canencia. We had a good shooter and excellent defense,” Hong recalled. “This team is young and we’re hard workers. I told these young guys from the beginning, they’re going to be thrown in the fire, so to speak. They’re going to have to grow up. They’re not sophomores. You can’t play like a sophomore. You have to come in and step up.”
In the tight quarters of ILH D-II hoops, where only two state berths exist, smaller schools like University need a near-perfect performance down the stretch to advance.
“I told the boys after, I was a little emotional, because last year we had Otto (Taylor) and he took that loss to Damien tough. The year before, we got upset by Le Jardin, so we’ve been at the doorstep for two years and had it slammed shut on us, but this year we were able to break through,” Tong said.