By Paul Honda
Same start, same finish.
Watching the ongoing primetime drama of Roosevelt and Kailua has all the emotional swings and power plays of any great rivalry. Yet, it’s puzzling and baffling — and for Kailua fans, heartbreaking — that the ending was the same once again.
A week ago, Kailua demolished Roosevelt in the first half, led by 17 at the break, opened the margin to 21 points … and found itself practically helpless as the Rough Riders rode a wave (no pun intended) of momentum to a playoff victory.
That’s why, when Kailua opened a relatively scant eight-point lead last night against the same Rough Riders, Surfrider Nation wasn’t quite comfortable yet. Once again, a Roosevelt rally and not much resistance from the boys in blue.
Roosevelt’s 46-36 victory for the Oahu Interscholastic Association White Conference crown gave basketball enthusiasts another head-scratching moment. Looking at both teams and recognizing again that Kailua looks like a collection of superior physical talent — they actually could pass the eye test as a great team in any sport — while Roosevelt … Roosevelt looks more like a cross country team, a bunch of wiry kids, almost everybody under 5-foot-10.
If there’s one thing that can’t be measured, it’s willpower. Roosevelt coach Steve Hathaway and his staff have found a way to channel his team’s natural reserves of angst, stubbornness, determination, persistence — any label you want to give it works fine — into a fiery man-to-man defense that just wears people out over time.
Sure, Kailua loves scoring on that defense early in games, but by the second half, the Rough Riders are there taking charges, blocking out on the boards and still hassling ballhandlers on the perimeter. How many teams can honestly say they do this? The ones who can are mostly still alive in the postseason.
The ones who can’t are gone. Talent isn’t a guarantee of success, and most teams that can’t do more than a zone defense have limited upside at some point. It’s true at the collegiate level — Syracuse is one of the few zone-oriented teams that has won a national championship over the years — and it’s true at the prep level.
Kailua has enormous rebounding talent in Ethan Mahaulu (nine rebounds last night) and center Jordan DeCorte, while Luis Valenzuela (6-foot-3) and John Vave are physical and long enough to give the Surfriders one of the most formidable front lines in the state regardless of classification. This combo, along with a backcourt duo of the human road runner (Corey Lau) and gunner Rhys Nakakura, are a fun bunch to watch when the offense is flowing.
But over the course of four quarters, Roosevelt eventually finds its rhythm and pierces that 2-3 zone. On top of all that, center Kaipo Pale is still going at full strength and energy levels by the fourth quarter — remember, he’s got the motor of a runner in a 6-4 frame — and he knows it, too. Pale went coast-to-coast twice in the fourth quarter, hitting buckets, drawing fouls and wow-ing the crowd at McKinley and fans watching live on OC 16.
It’s almost unfair. When a center has the fire and athleticism to do that late in a close game, it fuels both Roosevelt and chills Kailua. The good news for Kailua, of course, is that the state tourney awaits. In all likelihood, Top 10 resident St. Joseph will get the No. 1 seed out of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation; the Cardinals beat Moanalua at Na Menehune’s house in December. That would leave Roosevelt as the No. 2 seed out of the OIA barring a surprise from the seeding committee. That would leave Kailua in St. Joseph’s bracket and possibly set up a very intriguing matchup with the Cards, who also like their 2-3 zone. They’ve got a savvy point guard, a couple of dangerous wing men and a long, lanky center in Thomas Fairman.
But that’s down the road. For now, the Surfriders have to digest their third loss to Roosevelt in four games. If there’s anything that makes a team better, it’s a late-season defeat. There have been state-championship basketball teams that weren’t even titlists in their leagues.
Roosevelt? Can the Rough Riders play any better than they have during the OIA White tourney? The Rough Riders kept turnovers (11) down, shot 70 percent from the foul line (14-for-20) and outrebounded Kailua (30-29). They’re not the kind of team that can have an off night and still survive at the next level. Thing is, teams with great chemistry and leadership rarely collapse for entire games. That’s why defense wins championships, and that’s why Roosevelt has its first OIA crown in a decade.
They’ve done it completely Old School style, lacking a 3-point bomber and high-flying forward. They do it with a human bruise of a forward in 5-10 Brendan Nakatani, who attacks defenders far bigger without ceasing. They do it without a pure point guard; Agaese Tago is at his best on the defensive end, putting his gift of speed to work in transition. Roosevelt does it all without the usual polish and glitz.
Kailua pushed them to a new level, and vice-versa. If the Surfriders win in the opening round, then get past St. Joe, they might get to thank Roosevelt in person. An all-OIA Division II state final is very possible. It might be exactly what could cure Kailua’s blues.