By Paul Honda
A look at tonight’s showdown between top-ranked Punahou and No. 2 Kamehameha.
Tip-off at Hemmeter Fieldhouse is 6:30 p.m.
On paper: Defending state and league champion Kamehameha (15-3, 5-1) can tie Punahou (16-1, 6-0) in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu boys basketball standings with a win tonight.
The first time they met, Punahou and Kamehameha had barely gotten their laces on.
Back on Dec. 10, Kamehameha rallied for a 58-55 win in the final of the James Alegre Invitational. Warriors guard Chaz Bajet gave his team a lift, playing in the game despite missing time because of the Aloha Prep Bowl (football) that week. Their go-to man, Micah Christenson, had fresh legs and showed it with 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.
That night, Malik Johnson was big for the Buffanblu with 20 points, 11 rebounds (eight offensive) and a block. DeForest Buckner had 10 points and eight boards plus two blocks, but nobody else scored in double figures.
The same was true of Kamehameha, which only had Christenson in double figures.
Fast-forward to Jan. 7, and Punahou was a much more settled, cohesive unit. Buckner was beastly with 13 points and 23 rebounds (nine offensive), and Punahou won 48-45 at Kekuhaupi‘o Gym. Punahou’s perimeter shooting was erratic at best (4-for-12 from the arc), but Taylor Crabb hit a key 3-pointer down the stretch for Punahou, and the Buffanblu vaulted to the No. 1 ranking in the Star-Bulletin Boys Basketball Top 10 a few days later.
A factor in that loss for Kamehameha was Christenson, who had just returned from a volleyball trip to the mainland. The 6-foot-5 junior had 10 points, 11 caroms and three swats — solid numbers on the surface. But his normally accurate stroke was a bit off (4-for-11), and only one other Warrior managed to score in double figures (Shane Matayoshi, who had 11 points on on 3-for-10 shooting).
Kamehameha’s calling card, 3-point shooting, wasn’t quite aces, either. The Warriors were 5-for-20 from deep, With Punahou dominating the boards 41-24 — Kamehameha had only six offensive rebounds — it’s remarkable that the Warriors stayed that close.
The skinny: Punahou’s combination of size and athleticism have been breathtaking this season. Buckner (6-7), Johnson (6-5), reserve Kaiwi Crabb (6-5) anchor the paint, while backcourt contributors Henry Cassiday (6-3) and Taylor Crabb (6-1) give Punahou great hops when needed. Like T-Crabb, Cassiday is primarily a volleyball player, but he has evolved into a fierce defensive stopper and reliable mid-range shooter.
Crabb, though, has as much freedom as anyone, but only lately has his 3-point shot been fairly consistent. The St. Francis Merv Lopes Classic slam-dunk champ hit three treys and finished with 22 points in a win over Mid-Pacific on Tuesday.
Christenson, meanwhile, has been away for a second volleyball trip. The history of athletes flying to the mainland for trips at this time of year — usually football players on college visits — is a spotty one at best. If Christenson has gotten plenty of rest, he should be his usual dominant self the rest of the season.
At this point in his career, Christenson could develop into an Olympic volleyball star. If he chose to play basketball at the next level, he would be a tweener: a small forward with 3-point range who could fit into the rotation of a Division I mid-major, given time.
But if he grew another two or three inches to 6-7 or 6-8, there’s no question he could start at a mid-major as a small forward, perhaps even at guard if the program uses a mix of man and zone defenses — which Kamehameha already does. At 6-8, with his deadly shooting touch and range, Christenson would be an interesting and impossible matchup to deal with.
The trump card for him, of course, is an amazing vertical leap that increased several inches in the off-season.
X factor: Punahou coach Alika Smith always likes his team to run the floor and push the tempo, and they have responded well. They have the athletes and depth to press for 32 minutes, if they choose.
Kamehameha prides itself on defense. Since surrendering 57 points to ‘Iolani at Moanalua’s Na Menehune Holiday Classic (Christenson was absent that week), no team has scored more than 48 points against the Warriors.
Punahou could alter that string of good defensive efforts by Kamehameha. The Buffanblu have scored 91, 62, 68 and 76 points against ILH foes in the past three weeks. Only ‘Iolani managed to slow Punahou down in a 46-31 win by the Buffs.
Kamehameha will zone and trap the corners, extend to three-quarters of the court, and coach Jesse Nakanishi may even show some new wrinkles. But it will still come down to whether they hit open shots.