The individual scoring list for Nanakuli seems sparse at first.
Eight points. Six. Four. Three. A few zeroes. Then there is Kukilakila Kahalekai, who scored 61 points on Wednesday night in Nanakuli’s 82-41 win over Waialua. The 5-foot-11 guard connected on three 3-pointers and shot 16-for-20 at the free-throw line. More than half of his points were scored the old-fashioned way: 18 field goals inside the 3-point arc. He joins a very distinguished club that includes Ah Chew Goo of Hilo and Jim Nicholson of Saint Louis.
“He deserved to go out there and get his. It was the most unselfish 61 I’ve seen,” Nanakuli coach Wes Pacheco said. “We’re not strong in numbers, but we’re strong in the guys who stick together. This is the closest group we’ve had. His teammates were cheering for him.”
The senior is averaging nearly 21 points per game, and in his last three Kahalekai is averaging 38. The sense of urgency for all eight Golden Hawks is real as they fight for the highest possible seed in the West.
“We needed the win. The whole day, I was banking on this game. I told my teammates I wanted to go for a lot of points, and they said, we want you to go for it, too,” Kahalekai said. “I knew I was going to keep going and going until the game was over. My point guard, Kaipo Burnett, is doing everything for me, drawing defenders and making the correct reads.”
The way Pacheco and his staff see it, Kahalekai is capable of scoring 30 every night if he is aggressive. That’s what it will take for Nanakuli (2-5) to surpass Waianae (3-4) in the OIA West Division II standings.
“The kid is a full-speed kid. We kind of have our backs to the wall, so the kids know what’s at stake. He was zoned in. At this point (of the) season, since the Mililani game, our feedback is if he makes a good decision, the best possible decision with the ball, he should average 30,” Pacheco said. “We’ve actually been dissatisfied with Kila. He’s leading the state with free-throw attempts. We want the easy layup or the wide-open kick. It’s no secret what our style is because we’re undersized. He took it to heart against Waialua and he got to 30 by halftime.”
The routine for the tight-knit flock of Golden Hawks is simple on game day. Get something to eat from the plate lunch wagon — Kahalekai prefers the shoyu chicken plate, all rice with corn — and hang out at his family’s house across the street from campus. Talk about the game and “get hyped,” he said.
Then it’s a return to campus and more calories, a pre-game pizza provided by Coach Pacheco for the varsity and JV players in the gym. It’s a routine that works for Kahalekai.
He had modest numbers to start preseason: three points against Kalaheo, four versus Moanalua and seven on Punahou. Then he opened it up with 35 against Hawaii Baptist the day after the Punahou game. Four days after that, 35 in a loss to Farrington.
Since then, it has been a mix of moderate outputs and explosions. In conference play, Kapolei is the only team that has limited Kahalekai to single-digit scoring (nine points), but in his two games leading up to Waialua, he scored 27 on Campbell and 26 against Aiea.
“Kapolei, it was a box-and-one and I got into foul trouble early,” said Kahalekai, who was guarded by Hurricanes standout guard Ja’Shon Carter. “I had four fouls at the beginning of the third quarter and I fouled out in the beginning of the fourth.”
Nanakuli has battled despite struggling. The Golden Hawks opened preseason with a tough schedule, losing six games in a row. When OIA West season began, they lost their first five games. The Golden Hawks have shaken off two slumps already.
“Going to practice, just doing what we have to do over there. That’s the only way to get better, touching the ball,” Kahalekai said.
The win over Waialua is key, and a matchup with Waipahu (1-7) on Saturday will be crucial for a higher seeding.
“He gets it. He’s learned a lot from the beginning of the season. He kind of was passive. He wasn’t taking what they were giving him. We were up against Waianae and Leilehua in the fourth quarter, and he kind of slowed down, so our strategy moving forward is be a dude, we’re going to James Harden you,” Pacheco said. “It’s a gamble, but I’m willing to do that because he’s a good kid, 4.0 GPA.”
The staff and team are well aware that 60-point games are a rarity for a single player. Kahalekai is expecting more specialized defensive looks. The day when four or five Golden Hawks score in double figures while Burnett and Kahalekai each have close to double-digit assists is probably coming soon.
“I want everybody to be up with me,” Kahalekai said.
If Kahalekai seems to be a mystery, that’s only because he missed his entire junior season.
“Our preseason game last year against Kaiser, he broke his hip. We didn’t have him at all. I anticipated him being under the radar, and this year he’s slowly been building confidence,” Pacheco said.
What Nanakuli is also hoping for is to somehow surge past Waianae, get the opening-round bye and have a greater chance to qualify for the D-II state tournament. Only two state berths are available. Kahalekai’s scoring skills are being optimized because his coaches and teammates know Nanakuli’s chances of reach the state tournament increase when he is taking shots. A lot of shots.
Kahalekai can’t do it alone, despite what the numbers say. Halelu Kuamoo-Castro is a capable double-digit scorer with 3-point range and Burnett sets the table.
“My MVP of the game was actually our Kaipo. He had over 10 assists (against Waialua),” Pacheco said.
The return of 6-foot-1 center Deuce Yin is a major boost, the coach added.
“We didn’t have him in preseason. He allows us to run more creative sets on defense. He’s 6-1 and super athletic,” Pacheco said.
For the Golden Hawks, having a short memory and playing high-IQ basketball go together. The past is past. Waipahu, Pacheco noted, will probably play zone defense. Nanakuli will respond accordingly.
“I hope it becomes a chess game, but I told the kids it’s still a matter of making the best decision. Kila had 58 and the crowd is cheering for him to score 60. He drove to the basket, jump-stopped and kicked the ball out to a teammate,” Pacheco said. “We have a great crowd. If there’s a game in the Valley here in Nanakuli, a lot of people gravitate to us. Against Roosevelt two years ago, we had a great crowd and our kids fed off it.”
Despite the hip injury, Kahalekai put in countless hours of reps during the offseason with 808 Stunnahz coach Joseph Atumua, one of Pacheco’s assistants. Summer workouts at 6 a.m. in Mahiko Gym. Fall workouts at Nanakuli’s gym, also at 6 a.m.
“He puts in so much work. All of the work he’s doing, he understands the examples we’ve given him. Guys like Kameron Ng (of St. Francis) being in the gym 5 a.m. He’s a focused kid, a darn good kid,” Pacheco said.
The good kid with the perfect GPA is also one of the leaders.
“He even told his teammates, ‘We’re 2-5, but heck if we’re going to play like we’re 2-5.’ They have an interesting confidence. I’m just hoping him and Kaipo, they’re a good combo we can rely on,” Pacheco said.
If the season ended now, West 2 Nanakuli would host East 3 Kaimuki in the opening round of the playoffs. The Golden Hawks lost at Kaimuki in preseason 59-45. The winner of the playoff game would then face East 1 Farrington (7-1), though the Govs lost on Wednesday night to Kaiser (5-3), and Kaiser had lost to Kaimuki earlier in the week. It’s all ifs with three more games left on the regular-season schedule. The first-round bye is a huge plus, especially since the second-round game would be just 24 hours later.
“If they keep playing the way they’re playing now, I think our kids are understanding it. We’ve just got to peak at the right time,” Pacheco said. “We want that 1 (in the West) because this team deserves to be in states.”