When it matters most, the top-ranked Maryknoll Spartans demonstrate the most basic, perhaps most important skill of all.
The Spartans make free throws. It was true when Tony Sellitto was their coach in the 1980s. It remains true today with former Sellitto protege Kelly Grant at the helm. Top-ranked Maryknoll made 13 of 16 free-throw attempts in the final quarter for a dramatic 42-36 win over sixth-ranked Mid-Pacific at the Owls’ gym on Saturday night.
Again, as was the case in a heart-stopping win over ‘Iolani just 24 hours earlier, Maryknoll played everything close to the vest. Not many fastbreaks. A deliberate tempo. For Spartan fans, it might be almost too much to take. With a trio that is basically unmatched — low-post scoring artist Liko Soares, slasher/shooter Niko Robben and versatile 7-foot sophomore Sage Tolentino — plus an athletic, defensive-minded group of underclassmen, maybe the Spartans would fare quite well in a high-pace style.
Instead, Maryknoll plays its cards. Grant lets his talent play to their strengths. With an 18-1 mark, and 2-0 in the brutally tough ILH, Grant knows those cards best. Robben, the 6-foot-4 senior, sometimes defended in the paint against MPI’s 6-6 Kala Nakaya, who finished with eight points, four rebounds and two blocks. Tolentino tallied seven points on 3-for-6 shooting, but was a force elsewhere with 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Soares appeared to channel his inner Tim Duncan with a mix of maneuvers for reverse layups, and he froze a defender on a shimmy move for an easy bucket. Soares led the way with 16 points, scoring mostly against taller defenders. His game is priceless and timeless.
“My dad (Kaipo) taught me all of my moves,” said Soares, who shot 6-for-11 from the field and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line.
All four of his foul shots were in the fourth quarter. Though it’s true that Maryknoll probably could run and gun to 20- or 30-point leads against even the best teams in the state — most of whom are in the ILH — Grant is banking on that clutch gene to kick in every time out.
Against ‘Iolani and Mid-Pacific, Maryknoll’s relatively young group lost double-digit leads, never panicked, and simply closed wins out like veterans. Noah Furtado, a returnee, came up with a crucial steal during the comeback, when the Spartans trailed 34-31 early in the fourth quarter. He also sank two huge foul shots with 17.8 seconds left to turn a 39-36 lead into a five-point cushion.
In an era when 3-point sprees are the fantasy realm of all young players, free-throw shooting remains average at best for most programs. Maryknoll is the anomaly.
“We play a special free-throw shooting game during the regular season. They don’t want to lose or they do a community run (to Ala Wai Park),” said Grant, who was a sharpshooting guard during his playing career at Maryknoll.
Grant was calm as usual from start to finish. He actually enjoys the low-possession, station-to-station grind. It is one reason why he has led two schools — Kaimuki is the other — to state titles. The Spartans have a bit of break before facing another big challenge on Thursday.
“The next one is Kamehameha,” he said. ‘That’s a big one. Everyone is so evenly matched. This was a fun game to watch.”
Of course, battles to the final buzzer aren’t limited to Maryknoll. On Friday, No. 4 Punahou held on for a 72-69 win at Saint Louis. Mid-Pacific had a semi-comfortable lead on No. 3 Damien before losing in overtime, 60-57. ‘Iolani rallied to tie its game with Maryknoll entering the final quarter and led briefly before losing, 40-31.
“The worst thing in the ILH is to play with a lead,” Owls first-year head coach Robert Shklov said. “In all the games I’ve seen, Punahou was up 20 yesterday and (Saint Louis) got real close. We were up yesterday on Damien and they came back,” Shklov said. “Damien was up on us and we came back. Today, it went both ways. This league is so good that it’s hard to play with a lead.”
In other words, there have been four ILH boys basketball games so far, and all four have been nail-biters.
Best to work on those free throws.