By Paul Honda
If there were a sixth-man award, there would be few candidates as stout as Keven Amaral.
The 6-foot lefty regularly rides the pine as Moanalua’s Formula One starting crew takes off at the start of each game. By the time Amaral enters, he’s been chilled on the bench for several minutes. By the time he’s done for the night, the reserve swingman has another double-digit game, hardly a turnover and Moanalua has another win.
Last night’s 55-48 victory over Kahuku for the Oahu Interscholastic Association Red Conference crown was testament to the deep and loaded Menehune. Senior starters kept their poise while shots were drawing iron and instead found their teammates open for easy layups backdoor. Underclassmen like Marcus Keene and Amaral played smart and steady most of the night, and Moanalua won the league title despite a lot of pit stops and delays thanks to a Kahuku team that employed good transition defense.
Kahuku deserves this much credit: a title matchup near the end of a long week — just 48 hours removed from a win over Mililani — that required two long bus rides to town on another school night didn’t stop the effort. Big effort. Coach Hiram Akina gambled a bit with some fullcourt pressure, but kept his defense in a 2-3 matchup zone, hoping Moanalua wouldn’t catch fire. After all, in the same gym (McKinley), Moanalua scored 49 first-half points against Mililani last week.
This time, Moanalua had to adjust.
“Kahuku didn’t allow us to do what we want to do. We had to adapt to the pace of the game,” coach Greg Tacon said.
Patience, skip passes, screens … Moanalua has all the nuances of a smooth zone offense, as good and probably more balanced than any Tacon coached in his years at Punahou. Na Menehune had 14 assists to 12 turnovers, a winning ratio; Kahuku finished with six dimes and 13 giveaways.
• Moanalua will have today and tomorrow (and Sunday) off. Tacon plans to let his team rest up for next week’s state tourney. Meanwhile, he’ll be one of the roundball fans who will make the trek to Honokaa on Saturday, where Kamehameha will play for a state berth.
• Since the first day of preseason, Keene emerged as the missing link, a ballhandler who faced any on-ball pressure without hesitation. His skill and aggression gave Moanalua a closer, bringing relief to a team that lost quite a few leads last season down the stretch. But he had two passing miscues against Kahuku’s pressure, totally foreign ground for Moanalua fans.
“I really don’t know what happened,” he said. “I had some bad passes.”
Keene responded with two clutch free throws to close out the win. He had a team-high 14 points, including a pair of backdoor layups on feeds from Marcus Monroe. For all his swagger, Keene is still just a 14-year-old kid who happens to possess a basketball IQ and maturity beyond his years.
“Everybody does what they need to do on this team. There’s no bad shots,” he said.
• Moanalua scored the final two baskets of the first half, then opened the lead to 34-19 after a three-point play by Amaral and a pull-up jumper by Reece Racoma early in the third quarter.
Kahuku stayed in a 2-3 matchup zone and chipped away, but it was too late and too big a deficit for a comeback win. Moanalua is a racetrack team, but it also knows how to protect a lead in the second half. There are no flat-out stalls, just a spread-out motion attack. A pure four-corners delay game, by the way, would be lethal in Moanalua’s hands. With Monroe at the 5, that’s five solid ballhandlers on the floor. No other team can match that personnel, though ‘Iolani comes close with a smaller lineup.
• Monroe, at 6-4, had little help on the boards against Kahuku’s deep forest of rebounders. Yet, his work on the glass, including two blocks, is what kept Moanalua in the lead when shots weren’t falling.
“We weren’t getting in a rhythm. We weren’t knocking down shots. We weren’t connecting,” the senior said. “We needed to slow down and talk. We came out with a win.”
With a lanky frame, explosive game and mohawk hairdo, Monroe reminds fans of the squad from Houston — Jack Yates High School — that raced to the ‘Iolani Classic last December. Unlike the Yates squad, Monroe and his teammates enjoy the backdoor cut and bounce pass a bit more — not that Moanalua lacks flair.
Josiah Kauhola’s alley-oop lob gave Monroe a rim-rattling slam dunk during a 15-2 run to start the game. The dunks, the no-look passes, the rainbow 3-pointers — they’re all part of Moanalua’s game. Tacon gives them that leeway as long as the turnovers are down and they work their okoles off on defense.
“Coach says, ‘I know you’re working hard, but I want more.’ That’s what we do. We gotta work more for him,” Monroe said.
“We try our best, especially on the defensive end,” Amaral added. “Your offense will always come and go.”
• Kahuku sharpshooter Nehoa Akina was a marked man, but eventually took what Moanalua’s defense offered and attacked the rim several times. He finished with 20 points, the only Red Raider in double figures. Unlike the win over Mililani on Tuesday when his teammates hit five of Kahuku’s six treys, the Red Raiders were off-target last night. Akina was 2-for-7 from the arc and the rest of the team was 0-for-7 despite open looks.
“We’ve been playing pretty good. Maybe from tomorrow on we should be good,” the coach’s son said.
Kahuku’s faltering outside shot was a bummer, but the Red Raiders stayed in the game with its tough defense and hustle.
“Moanalua runs transition really well. That’s their only game,” the senior guard said.
• Kahuku’s Shairone Thompson was effective on the low post, hitting four shots in a row in the second and third quarters. In the final quarter, however, he didn’t have a single shot attempt and finished with nine points.
It was defense, though, that Thompson thought about after the game.
“This puts us where we’re at. It showed that we need to work on our defense, moving our feet,” the former New Zealand resident said. “And we need to finish at the basket.”
• Kahuku opened with 2-for-10 shooting in the first quarter, then shot 13-for-24 in the second and third stanzas. The fourth quarter? Three-for-10 shooting. The Red Raiders finished 41 percent from the field (18-for-44) and 91 percent at the foul line (10-for-11).
• Moanalua shot 50 percent in the first half (12-for-24) and finished at 44 percent (18-for-41). Na Menehune shot 67 percent at the free-throw line (16-for-24) and accumulated 12 steals, led by Keene’s four takeaways.
• The teams had split two previous games. Kahuku won at Moanalua 58-53 on Jan. 14. Moanalua then won at Kahuku 64-58 four nights later.