In the end, once again, the heavyweight outmuscled the welterweight.
Top-ranked Punahou took everything No. 5 St. Francis had to offer and persevered for a 59-52 win on Saturday night in the final of the Punahou Invitational.
“It was a good pressure game for us. It was good for us, even though it wasn’t a perfect game,” Buffanblu coach Darren Matsuda said. “Our execution on offense, we have our standard and we didn’t get there. (St. Francis’) defense is real good, though, and part of our struggle was because we were playing under pressure.”
The stats don’t make wins or losses, but they sure can tell us what and when the pivot points were. First, the endurance and production of the second-highest scoring player in the Punahou Invitational.
Kameron Ng, St. Francis
>> Wednesday, 23 points (5-for-7 FT) against Mid-Pacific
>> Thursday, 31 points (four treys, 15-for-18 FT) against Sequoia (Calif.)
>> Friday, 21 points (two treys, 13-for-15 FT) against Maryknoll
>> Saturday, 20 points (one trey, 13-for-16 FT) against Punahou.
>> Total: 95 points (23.8 per game), seven treys, 46-for-56 FT (.821)
(Hawaii Baptist’s Micah Mitchell scored 102 points.)
If the all-tournament team — both Kameron and Kordel Ng were selected — included an MVP and most outstanding player, Kameron would’ve been a top candidate for one or the other.
>> When fatigue should’ve been settling in, Punahou’s depth prevailed. With fresher legs than St. Francis during a fourth game in four days, the Buffanblu shot a perfect 10-for-10 at the free-throw line in the final quarter. The Saints were 5-for-12, unusually off-target, but the wear and tear of defending all night was real.
>> Fifteen offensive boards by the Saints kept them in the game even as their shooting faltered from the field (14-for-55) and the foul line (20-for-35). Fifteen offensive caroms is an absurdly high number for any team in a high school game (32 minutes). Many were long rebounds on 3-point misses, creating a free-for-all deal with smaller, but often quicker players like Kordel Ng racing to the ball. More often, it was Bubba Akana, who had five offensive rebounds.
>> St. Francis from the 3-point arc: 3-for-17. That’s 17.6 percent, well below their rate in the semifinal against Maryknoll (7-for-14, 50 percent) and the quarterfinal against Sequoia (6-for-13, 46 percent). That’s the problem with playing a team a second time. They know your strengths more than anyone.
>> A near-zero giveaway rate in the second half by St. Francis was another near-saving grace. The Saints had just three turnovers after halftime. The low field-goal percentage basically neutralizes that low-turnover total, but still, it’s astounding.
>> For the game, St. Francis’ 55 FG attempts were buoyed by those 15 offensive rebounds. Along with 16 trips to the foul line (for two-shot or 1-and-1s, not counting and-1 FTs as a trip) and 11 turnovers, that’s 67 actual trips up the court. Whether we count an offensive rebound as an additional possession/opportunity, there were 67 or so trips upcourt. That’s a healthy number for a high school game, but their scoring rate per trip, at .78, was modest.
>> Though Kameron Ng was smothered by defenders all night and struggled (3-for-23 from the field, he came through at the foul line (13-for-16) and finished with 20 points. With 23 FG attempts, eight trips to the line, a relatively low three turnovers, his rate was .59 (20/32), an off night but still productive. He also had four rebounds, two assists and a steal. Unlike blocks, which often end up out of bounds, a steal is a true value, a plus in the possession ledger.
>> Compare that with Punahou’s Zayne Chong, who doesn’t have the same ballhandling responsibilities and isn’t asked to carry the offense in the same way. But for comparison’s sake, he had 16 points on 11 FG attempts, three trips to the line (not including an and-1 FT) and two turnovers. At 16/16, that’s a 1.0 rate. Very efficient, but again, his usage isn’t the same. Chong also had five rebounds, four of them on offense, along with an assist and a steal. This doesn’t necessarily mean Chong had a more important role, but it does present a case that he played his role extremely well. If all his teammates have a 1.0 rate, Punahou probably scores 66 points based on its trips upcourt it had. Sixty-six points is usually enough to win any game in the ILH. They were pretty close with 59 points (.89). Since I’m not adding offensive rebounds as extra possessions this time, it may seem like a diminished value, but of course it is not. I don’t know what numerical value to give an OR, but it clearly isn’t 0, which would be the case for a possession that doesn’t end with a bucket or free throw(s). Punahou finished with a very respectable 12 offensive rebounds and those hustle plays absolutely contributed to an efficient (.89) rate per offensive trip.
For a half, the St. Francis Saints — defending Division II state champion, tiny school in Manoa Valley, quite literally a campus that had been struggling to survive in recent years — hung close with the ultimate behemoth. Punahou’s lead was just 25-22 by intermission in the championship game of its Invitational tournament.
We don’t get a lot of these David-versus-Goliath, Top 10-against-Top 10 opportunities these days in prep sports. This was a bit like Thomas Hearns entering the ring against Marvin Hagler — if Hagler was the size of heavyweight legend Muhammed Ali rather than arguably the greatest true middleweight of all time. For every elite guard St. Francis suited up, Punahou had someone defensively capable, taller, heavier and equally athletic. Sort of. (I say sorta because of Kordel Ng’s rim-level, two-handed block during the first half. He stands 5 feet, 9 inches.)
At (I’m guessing) no more than 135 pounds, he is a lightweight only on the scale. The sophomore fought in the trenches against a slew of 6-foot, 6-2, 6-4 athletes, some twice his weight or more, and pulled down eight rebounds. He also had three steals and added eight points. If we had Pound-4-Pound ratings in prep basketball, Kordel Ng might be at the top of the list for his defense, shot-blocking, penetration skills, toughness… five Kordels against any team in the state would be a great game.
It took a defensive-minded team effort by No. 1 Punahou to prevent Kordel’s older brother, Kameron, from having another epic performance. Unlike Friday, when early foul trouble kept him on the pine for most of the second quarter, Kameron Ng was in wheeling and dealing mode. The shots didn’t fall often, but he drew enough contact to shoot 7-for-8 at the line. With the added attention from Punahou’s help-side defenders, the dimes were dropping, as well. Shades of a young Kimo Bajet.
The Saints seemed to have all kinds of momentum. After losing to Punahou in the title game of the St. Francis Holiday Hoops Classic, maybe it would be destiny for the Saints to return the favor and beat the Buffanblu in their house. A split with the No. 1 team, the state’s (and arguably America’s) mega-bomboocha academic and athletic institution? Why not St. Francis.
Then the third quarter started and the third quarter happened. Which means referees let two prize-fighting boxers go at it, not with jabs and uppercuts, but with layers upon layers of physicality. The games I’d seen over the course of four days had varying degrees and definitions of what a foul should be. For the most part, officials were consistent one way or another, but they more often were in that gray area.
It worked well for St. Francis, which got enormous numbers of free-throw attempts in those wins over Sequoia, then Maryknoll. They still got their share on Saturday; Kameron Ng was 13-for-16 at the line against Punahou. But it was often the no-calls that hurt the Saints. Giving up 20 to 40 pounds at most positions, let alone 2 to 6 inches in height, plus Punahou’s luxury of personnel depth, it’s the kind of difference that St. Francis coach Ron Durant chats freely about.
ILH officials have long been know to permit more contact than referees in any league. Some weren’t pleased about adhering to the federation’s emphasis on calling hand-checking when it came down three years ago. They abided, but grudgingly, and ultimately, not fully. But they were consistent.
When St. Francis got knocked around during the the third quarter, it was like watching a group of grown men — dads, uncles and their friends — toy with a smallish group of high schoolers. A back-to-back-to-back string of collisions that wound up with no fouls called on the burly — some might say hulking — Buffanblu completed stagnated St. Francis.
Couple that with impeccable defense by Cole Arceneaux — playing despite flu symptoms — and Tamatoa Falatea on the state’s best one-on-one scorer, Kameron Ng, and that was all she wrote for the Saints. Punahou went on a 18-9 run to start the third quarter. St. Francis chipped away, got within 43-39 with 6:13 left in the game, but that was it. The difference was defensive mastery on the perimeter and a proud ownership of real estate near the rim by the Buffanblu.
If this game had been officiated by BIIF referees, St. Francis wins. That’s just a matter of style and the tradition of rule interpretations on different islands. I’ve heard coaches and players gripe about BIIF officiating for decades, but the one constant that results is that all those free throws lead to clock stoppages and a lot of points. It makes BIIF basketball, particularly on the boys side, a high-scoring show for all spectators to enjoy. They always called the hand-check in the BIIF, long before any association or federation practically made it a law to enforce once again.
The Saints know this: there is no right or wrong way to officiate a game. You adjust, period. But all things being equal in a game that involves a lot of sumo-style banging in the paint, the bigger, stronger, heavier team prevails. It’s a finesse game, a skill game and a flashy, splashy game — to a point. It is exactly why Saints coach Ron Durant continues to support the decision to keep the program in D-II of the ILH.
Yes, they nearly beat Kamehameha three weeks ago at the Surfrider Holiday Classic. Yes, they nearly beat Punahou nine days ago. Yes, they upset Maryknoll — which played without point guard Jordyn Perez, an A-level defender and floor general — with clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch. But as Durant says, these are “onesies and twosies” that the Saints can handle to an extent. Bunch a few games against ILH heavyweights together in one week, and his Saints might not be the same again.
His point is supported by this: St. Francis won the battle with Maryknoll, another big, tall team, but had to face Punahou 24 hours later. They got strong play in the key from Boris Vukovic, Bubba Akana, Wembley Mailei and more. But Punahou brought their battalion of size and speed, and the Saints — even the elusive and explosive Kordel Ng — could do little to stop the Buffanblu at ground level under the rim.
For all the obvious shortcomings — Kameron Ng shot 3-for-23 from the field, the Saints made just six baskets in the entire second half, the ball sharing that was apparent in the win over Maryknoll was almost non-existent in the second half against Punahou, etc. — it all still came down to Punahou’s defense. Only two teams have been able to absorb all of Kameron Ng’s offensive onslaughts and managed to wear him down.
Arceneaux trained with Ng in the offseason. What he has filed away in his mental notebook, a Mind Palace, if you will, would be golden treasure if unlocked for other defenders to see.
“The thing that prepared me most was traveling in the summer and preseason, playing tough guards like the Tesoro point guard,” Arceneaux said. “I knew if I could keep Kameron to less than 20 points, I’d feel like I won. I take a lot from football. I used to play DB before I played receiver (in high school). The key is just don’t buy any fakes. Kam is so crafty, he’s the best guard in the state when it comes to handles and scoring.”
At 16-1, Punahou has done its part as a top-ranked team. They can win playing any speed, any style. They are referee-proof, really. If officials call it tight, that benefits their slashers like Arceneaux and Zayne Chong. if officials allow significant contact, their bigger, explosive athletes like Maninoa Tufono and Kaulana Makaula can use their muscle plus speed and hops. If they need a shot as time expires, as was the case against Tesoro in the semifinals, 6-5 Cole Mausolf can get his shot over just about any guard or forward at the 3-point arc. Ball game.
When an opposing team has a stretch 5 who can knock down the open 3, as St. Francis’ Boris Vukovic did in the first quarter, Punahou can switch personnel and employ the 6-3 Tufono as a highly mobile 5-defender.
St. Francis is 16-3 against a schedule almost entirely of D-I opponents, many of them ranked in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. There is nothing to sob about, right? But it still hurts. After the game, Kameron was poised, but had obviously cried his heart out after the game. The Saints weren’t angry as much as they were frustrated. Has any D-II program played this well for four nights in a row against top local teams — No. 1 and No. 2 — and a mainland program (Sequoia) that went fairly deep in the CIF’s Division I state playoffs?
The answer is no. The Saints are walking on water, or uncharted waters. They are now officially pau with the appetizer portion of this basketball feast. The D-II schedule, a D-II only menu, is ahead. A million things could jolt this team’s chemistry, but that seems unlikely. And basketball junkies will debate about whether the Saints should be in D-I, whether D-II is worth their time and energy. Whether it is right for a school’s coaches and administrators to care enough about their student-athletes to limit the physical pounding and potential damage that can occur with a diet of Punahou, Kamehameha, Maryknoll, Saint Louis, Mid-Pacific and ‘Iolani on a regular basis. As in two to three games per week, every week, and then absorb more damage in the playoffs.
Maybe this: if and when St. Francis has more size under the rim, more depth of skilled bigs, maybe then Durant will feel comfortable enough to consider a move to ILH D-I. But that may never happen. There’s one young big on the roster. The rest will graduate in June. That means the Ng brothers, both underclassmen, will return to a team that will be smaller and quite possibly have much less depth.
But that’s many months away. Other teams, including Punahou, Maryknoll and Kamehameha, will graduate an immense amount of talent. D-I programs, however, tend to reload rather than rebuild. The intermediate and JV teams at those institutions are forever filled to the gills with young players dreaming of suiting up for the Buffanblu, Spartans and Warriors. Kamehameha, to be sure, is forever in a dilemma during tryouts at the younger levels, cutting dozens of basketball players who are good enough to star for public JV and middle-school teams.
St. Francis? Still a small school. So is Damien, even after going co-ed in recent years. The tenor of Monarchs coach Alvin Stephenson’s plans is very simple: if Damien wins a league and state championship, the move to D-I would be practically immediate. With six freshmen on the roster, including three starters, the potential is visibly enormous. But the chances of winning ILH D-II and states aren’t strong with St. Francis in the picture.
The road map is more like two years away. By then, super ninth-graders like Jyden Hall and 6-4 Dimonyai Lacey will be seasoned juniors. Confidence builds one step at a time, but can tumble down in bunches. Instantly. So Stephenson wisely bides his time, and the Monarchs are reaping the benefits of his wisdom. They had a strong performance at the Punahou Invitational. Maybe the middle path will be a move to D-I next year. That’s how much talent and hunger their young players have.
Of all places, Hawaii appreciates a David and Goliath scenario as much as any other, forever cheering on the underdog. Punahou’s team is built around its talented, deep senior group, a core that withstands nearly all challenges. But Punahou’s ability to reload every year is the biggest reason programs with lesser means prefer to stay in ILH D-II. The welterweights will stay put, at least for now.