They were, during different stretches in the Darren Matsuda era, a run-and-gun outfit that loved to play at breakneck speed.
At times, the top-ranked Punahou Buffanblu are still that team. But more than ever, the senior-heavy squad opts for efficiency over extravagance. The result? Three wins and no losses to start the gauntlet of Interscholastic League of Honolulu boys basketball.
Tonight’s 66-59 win over No. 2 Kamehameha was mostly uptempo, though neither team gambled excessively on defense with fullcourt traps. For Punahou (19-1 overall), it was a whirlwind compared to last week’s 47-42 win over Maryknoll or the 46-39 victory over Mid-Pacific. The Buffanblu are more than happy to run the floor, but their core players are equally ecstatic to play tremendous defense.
Matsuda sent 6-foot-5 Cole Mausolf to defend Kamehameha’s dangerous scorer, Kamren Victorino-Kato, and also employed Tamatoa Falatea. The two limited Victorino-Kato to two points (0-for-6) in the first half. He finished with 22 points, attacking the rim with reckless abandon as the Warriors tried to rally from an 11-point deficit.
In the end, Punahou crowded the paint when possible, and limited 6-6 Kobe Young to a modest 16 points. The Warriors couldn’t convert enough on open looks: 5-for-19 from the 3-point arc (26 percent).
Kamehameha (15-4, 2-1 ILH) shot 42 percent from the field, and even 52-percent shooting at the free-throw line (12-for-23) is something teams in the brutal ILH can withstand.
“The major difference was our inability to keep them in front of us,” Warriors coach Greg Tacon said.
Kamehameha easily could’ve switched to a matchup zone, or completely gone hyper-speed mode by pressing all game long. But Tacon is a believer in halfcourt man defense, as is Matsuda. Zones can be solved. Zones can be busted.
Especially with shot blocker Lele Kawaiaea back, the Warriors had reason to believe they would be able to do what no other island team has done: slow Punahou’s balanced offense. Instead, the Buffanblu shot 50 percent from the field (18-for-36) and were steady at the foul line (24-for-34, 71 percent).
By the final quarter, three Warriors fouled out, including Kawaiaea.
“I’ve just got to stay out of foul trouble. I want our team to depend on me and Kobe to protect the rim,” Kawaiaea said. “They made free throws, oh my gosh.”
Punahou’s Zayne Chong also fouled out after scoring 26 points, proving nearly unstoppable on penetration, 3-point shooting and a willingness to take contact near the bucket. But more than anything, Punahou’s core group — the seniors, Matsuda said, that had to win six games in a row to qualify for the state tournament two years ago — is all in defensively.
“Kaulana (Makaula) made Kobe work,” Matsuda said. “Cole and Tama can switch back and forth (on Victorino-Kato). They both take defense personally.”
They mustered with a depleted frontcourt, he added, with Duke Clemens (hand) and 6-7 Jordan Hepting (finger) out of the lineup.
“Our core guys have been together three years and they’ve been through pressure,” Matsuda said. “That’s helped us mentally.”
Punahou will host Saint Louis on Thursday. Kamehameha will entertain Mid-Pacific, also on Thursday.