The Maryknoll Spartans usually learn from wisdom.
Between last year and this year, however, they learned from pain. From experience. A loss to Kahuku in the state-tournament semifinals was more than a wake-up call. It sparked a movement to become more. As in more physical. They hit the weight room with a dedication rarely seen in the storied lore of Spartan basketball history.
That muscle and leverage turned a team of tall, long and thin hoopsters into one of the best defensive units in state history. Maryknoll’s 50-34 win over Punahou — a matchup of No. 1 and No. 2 in the Star-Advertiser Boys Basketball Top 10 — was a final chapter in the evolution and process of the Spartans.
One indicative play: a loose ball in the corner drew a sturdy Punahou wing, Tamatoa Falatea, and Maryknoll’s 6-foot-7 senior, Marcus Tobin. Falatea wound up bouncing off Tobin, who fought for the ball and won. A year or two ago?
“He would’ve laid me out,” Tobin said. “We made sure we made it a priority to hit the weight room. Games like Kahuku last year, they would out-physical us at every 50-50 ball. They would get every loose ball and it would make our defensive possessions a lot longer, and demoralize our team. We made sure we got tougher so we could secure the ball.”
Payton Grant, one of the state’s top defenders, was another devotee in the weight room.
“It’s really important. I remember my sophomore year, we were just getting pushed around by a lot of people,” he said. “A lot of people were getting offensive rebounds on us. We dedicated ourselves to getting stronger and not getting bullied on the court.”
Tobin finished the title game with 17 points and five rebounds.
Tobin and his teammates were laden with flower and candy leis by the Spartan community.
“It feels amazing. I’m kind of emotional right now. I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was a kid,” Tobin said.
Makoto Kamata, another senior who benefited from weight-room dedication, had 16 points including clutch 8-for-8 shooting at the foul line. It was Kamata, among others, who dreaded the long runs from campus to Ala Wai Park when Grant made free-throw shooting a big emphasis late in the regular season. The only way to avoid the extra mileage was to improve at the charity stripe.
Kamata also had four rebounds, two assists and two of his team’s five blocks.
“I’ve been dreaming about this since seventh grade when I moved to Maryknoll. It’s a dream come true. I just wanted to win states. Coach Kelly is kind of annoying because he always brings up how he’s the last one that won it at Maryknoll. All of us just wanted to prove him wrong and we just wanted to be our own number from now on,” Kamata said. “We just played like we always do. We played with each other. We talked on defense and we just worked as a team and it usually works out for us.”
Punahou made quick work of just about every team in the state aside from their nemesis, Maryknoll. Punahou’s ledger, 29 wins and six losses, reads with a long string of W’s along the way. Their mark against Top 10 teams was a zany 23-5 coming into the championship bout.
Again, however, Maryknoll prevailed. In their three previous meetings, this is what resulted.
>> Jan. 12. Maryknoll wins at home over Punahou, 55-49
>> Jan. 26. The Spartans win at Punahou, 51-39.
>> Feb. 11. In an ILH playoff game for the tourney title, Maryknoll wins at home 55-42.
But that was then. Punahou was 12-0 on neutral courts this season. Punahou pulled out the stops, going with a 2-3 matchup zone that seemed to halt Maryknoll’s rhythm early on.
“It took a while for us to figure it out, but we run a lot of zone offense during practice, so it was easy to adjust,” Kamata said. “Coach wanted me to drive a lot because they knew Kona (Makaula) and Duke (Clemens) were in foul trouble.”
But on this night before a raucous crowd of Maryknoll and Punahou faithful, the Buffanblu were limited to their lowest scoring output of the season. In fact, Punahou — a team that had the kind of season that would’ve been good enough to win the state title in a number of other seasons — scored less than 50 points only three times all year. All sub-50 point games were losses to the long, strong defenders of Maryknoll.
The Spartans got a fadeaway baseline jumper from Tobin off a long offensive rebound to close the first half. Then they turned a 21-11 lead into a 33-14 edge before the end of the third stanza. Punahou chopped the lead to 10 after a Makaula trey, but that was as close as it got.
“We were kind of rattled, but we talked about keeping our composure. We’ve been here before,” Tobin said. “We’ve had so many close games. We live for these moments, so it’s nothing new. And keep attacking the basket, making good decisions.”
Nikko Robin, running the point, had another stellar game. Reserve center Liko Soares, another big night. He countered Punahou’s devastating post scorer, Duke Clemens, two powerful wide-bodies battling in the trenches. Soares finished with three points and four rebounds, but his value was massive.
Two more stunning numbers: 0 and 6. Maryknoll had no turnovers in the first half and finished with just six, an unheard of total against Punahou’s fullcourt pressure. The height and knowledge of seniors like Payton Grant — being able to see over defenders and run multiple press breakers — is immeasurable on paper.
“It’s great. It’s something special for our school. You can see we have one of the greatest student sections support us at every game. Defense wins championships and it showed here,” said Grant, son of their head coach.
The Spartans finished the season 29-2, winning their last 12 games. They were 19-2 against Top 10 opponents. The two losses were to Damien, 55-47, on Dec. 20 at the Punahou Invitational, and to Kamehameha, 34-33, on Jan. 10. Both Damien and Kamehameha have major cores of young talent and will contend for the ILH D-I crown next season.
For now, though, Kelly Grant can relax and celebrate after all the expectations heaped upon his 2018-19 team with its senior talent and leadership. When he was a senior guard in 1984, Maryknoll won the state title. When Grant coached at Kaimuki in 2003, the Bulldogs surprised the basketball world with their first and only state championship. It took 35 years for the Spartans to break through again.
“There was so much pressure. I don’t show it, but when we won at Kaimuki, nobody expected us to win it,” Grant said. “But this team with four seasoned seniors, a lot of pressure. Everybody was telling me, This is your year, but that’s still not my approach to the game. We had to finish.”
Legendary coach Tony Sellitto, the architect of Maryknoll’s powerhouse program during that era, is never far away. Sellitto, who is also Grant’s godfather, called him earlier in the day.
“He calls me all the time,” said Grant, who also played for Sellitto at Hawaii Pacific. “I‘m going to thank him and congratulate him too. A lot of stuff we run, press breakers and zone defense, is what he ran.”