Query of Quarters: Group of Death in play

Kalaheo's Kekai Smith took a shot against Maui's Jake Frazee in the first round. Krystle Marcellus / Star-Advertiser
Kalaheo’s Kekai Smith took a shot against Maui’s Jake Frazee in the first round. Krystle Marcellus / Star-Advertiser

The field has pared off four entrants from 12 to eight.

The Division I state tourney is in full gear tonight with four games of meaning.

Yesterday’s opening round gave underdogs plenty of opportunity, but none could walk away with victory in hand. Nope. It wasn’t to be. Maui ran and ran, shot better than 50 percent from the field and still lost to Kalaheo 77-65. The Sabers had 39 turnovers, early double their number of field goals made.

Playing at home, Moanalua had a nine-point lead against Kahuku and fell 49-48. Nick Abramo recounted that battle and noted that at least one coach was not satisfied with the officiating.

At the McKinley bracket, the underdogs had second-half leads, but in the end, experience won out over youth.

Here’s a look at tonight’s quarterfinals.

New City Nissan/HHSAA Boys Basketball Division I State Championships
Quarterfinal round

Konawaena (10-8, 8-6 BIIF) vs. Kahuku (17-4, 12-2 OIA)
Moanalua bracket, 5 p.m.

Results: This is the first meeting between the two teams this season. Konawaena is champion of the BIIF. Kahuku lost in the OIA final.

Rankings: Konawaena, seeded fourth among the four league champions, is unranked and has not been ranked all season. Kahuku is No .4 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. The Red Raiders were as high as No. 2 last week.

Skinny: The Wildcats came into the season without the same expectations of last year’s senior-heavy unit. Gone were several key players, including all-state guard Brandon Awa. However, the development of players through coach Donald Awa’s Kona Stingrays program was promising, and so was the arrival of three transfers from Honokaa. The Wildcats won and lost a bunch of close games in BIIF play, then peaked in the playoffs with close wins. They edged Kamehameha-Hawaii 61-59 at the Afook-Chinen Hilo Civic Auditorium for the BIIF crown.

Kahuku was a talented, young and not very deep squad entering the season. Samuta Avea and Keanu Akina had already been steady contributors as freshmen guards a year ago. Avea, in particular, is explosive and versatile enough to be a triple-double playmaker. With the arrival of three Kiwis — Hyrum Harris (6-6), Denhym Brooke (6-7) and Tama Green (6-1) — during preseason, coach Alan Akina’s squad was blessed with depth and height instantly.

Since the additions, Kahuku has won all but two games: the OIA regular-season opener at Kalaheo, and the OIA championship game against Farrington. In both games, Kahuku was unable to hold on to moderately comfortable leads, and in both situations, sketchy ballhandling did the Red Raiders in.

Last night’s 49-48 comeback win over another OIA East team, Moanalua, was another wobbly trip down that same road.

X Factor: Kahuku’s bench was a key factor against Moanalua after the three Kiwis, all starters, got into foul trouble. Akina doesn’t need a lot of big statistics from his reserves. What he needs is reliable ballhandling and solid defense just to hold down the fort. Kesi Ah-Hoy’s return during midseason from injury was a major boost to the bench mob. He is a formidable piece on the chess board, a strong, fast player who can rebound, defend, pass and run the break.

Pupule says: Depending on Konawaena’s defensive strategy — Awa normally likes to stay in a halfcourt man — the Wildcats could test Kahuku’s A) sometimes erratic ballhandling, and B) stamina. The Red Raiders will have been on the road for roughly three hours and 102 miles (34 miles each way) from Kahuku to Moanalua’s gym by the time they suit up for this late-afternoon game. Note that the Red Raiders played the late game yesterday and probably didn’t get back home and in bed until 11 p.m. last night at the earliest.

The road has mercy for none.

The one saving grace is that their size and length allows Akina, the coach, to let his team sit in a 2-3 zone from start to finish. They force more than enough turnovers without the risk of extending anyone too far.

The very young Wildcats are the clear underdogs, if cats can be dogs, and there’s absolutely no pressure on them. Their defensive pressure will make a difference, and if they’ve got any youthful swagger, they won’t care about any of the hype, headlines or height. For better or worse.

Pupule pick: Red Raiders 51, Wildcats 44.

The winner will play the Punahou-Kalaheo winner on Friday, 7 p.m., at Stan Sheriff Center.

# # #

Punahou (23-3, 11-1 ILH) vs. Kalaheo (28-3, 13-1 OIA)
Moanalua bracket, 7 p.m.

Results: These teams met in the final of the Punahou Invitational and it was a thriller. Alec MacLeod’s putback before the buzzer gave Kalaheo a 41-40 win.

Punahou had an opening-round bye after winning the ILH title last week. The Buffanblu had a 13-point lead and nearly lost it all before edging ‘Iolani 48-46 in the tourney final. Kalaheo is coming off a robust 77-65 win over MIL runner-up Maui. Kalaheo is the third-place team from the OIA.

Rankings: Punahou is No. 1 in the seedings and also first in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. Kalaheo, which had been No. 1 for most of the season, dropped to No. 3 after losing to Farrington in the OIA semifinals.

Skinny: This is the definition of “Group of Death’ as coined by Jerry Campany last week. it’s not a surprising trend or occurrence. Last week, in the girls state tourney, ILH runner-up Punahou was paired with top-seeded Konawaena in another quarterfinal-round game. Whether it’s because of the HHSAA procedures or the need for a marquee matchup on Day 2 (for gate and TV purposes), it basically is impossible to please all fans.

The ILH has been powerful and, until the past decade, mostly dominant in girls and boys basketball. No matter which bracket or what the pairing is, the ILH runner-up will meet up most times with a strong OIA foe because of the numbers. (The OIA has half of the state tournament’s berths in most sports, if not all.) But this season, it’s more brutal than usual when Kalaheo, Kahuku and Punahou — ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in last week’s Star-Advertiser Top 10 — are in the same bracket.

Not so great for players and coaches. Tremendous scuttlebutt for spectators.

Punahou has depth, talent, height and, apparently, a very non-ILH penchant for gunning the ball instead of sitting on it. I still can’t get over the way Buffanblu fans let out a collective “No!” when J.B. Kam let a corner 3 fly during that close battle with ‘Iolani last week. Punahou had a very small lead, could have run more time off the clock, but Kam, like his teammates, wanted a kill shot. He missed, but high-flying Micah Ma‘a soared in condor-style and got the follow shot.

That’s what makes this Punahou team a little different. For all their depth and senior experience, they want to stick that dagger through opponents. Trouble is, teams like ‘Iolani — and Kalaheo — can take advantage of those lower-percentage decisions. Do you hit on 15 or stand? How about 12?

The Buffanblu have shown that they’ll hit more than stand. Kalaheo’s not a whole lot different. Since a mind-blowing 41-40 win at the buzzer over Punahou — at Hemmeter Fieldhouse — roughly two months ago, the Mustangs have been a charmed team, rolling through the OIA with flair and speed. Then came the loss to Farrington, when the Mustangs looked a bit clunky against a 2-1-2 press. It’s not that they played a bad game; Farrington needed overtime to pull that one out.

If anything, that loss has probably made Kalaheo a better team. It’s just rare that a No. 1 team in one week would face a new No. 1 in the following week at the state tourney in a round so early. I don’t remember a more anticipated early-tournament matchup, not since, well… last week’s girls tourney.

Maui had more turnovers (39) than field-goal attempts (36) in the loss to Kalaheo. Punahou won’t have quite that level of struggle in the backcourt.

X Factor: Kaleb Gilmore and Kupaa Harrison are star players for Kalaheo, no question. So are Kam and guards Jordan Tanuvasa and Dayson Watanabe for Punahou. But the maker or breaker for this matchup could be the post play of Akahi Troske. He’s not a big-time scorer, but as Maui’s Tristan Nichols showed yesterday — 22 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field and 8-for-12 shooting at the foul line, plus nine rebounds — Kalaheo remains somewhat vulnerable on the low post.

Harrison (19 points, eight boards, 10 steals, two turnovers against Maui) is 6-4 plus, but he is still more of a stretch 4 than a center. The Mustangs could use a stolid defensive presence from 6-5 freshman Jalen Smith, a wiry shooter who is more accustomed to playing the wing than the post.

Pupule says: Coach Alika Smith’s championship team in 2013 didn’t have a big boy in the middle. What they had was outstanding shooters, height and skill. If the 2015 Mustangs can contain Punahou’s posts — Troske could do his team a huge favor by scoring double figures tonight — half the battle is won. Kam will look to launch from deep, but he also has the strength to post up, and if that gets Harrison in foul trouble, the Buffanblu will dial that number more than usual.

This may be the best battle of guards for the entire week. Kekai Smith and Gilmore (22 points, five assists, seven turnovers against Maui) vs. Watanabe and Tanuvasa. if Kalaheo holds down the fort inside, backcourt depth tilts in its favor with young, but disciplined guard Captain Whitlock and tourney-experienced guard Zachary Marrotte, who scored 12 points against Maui.

Can coach Darren Matsuda get his Buffanblu to protect any kind of a lead against a defense as quick as Kalaheo’s? I’m not sure. I am sure of this: Ma‘a is a rebounding beast when nobody boxes him out, and if Harrison is occupied with Troske or Kam, who shields the boards against Ma‘a?

The OIA’s 4, Leilehua, gave ‘Iolani a major scare last night, and OIA 5 Campbell finished strong against KS-Hawaii. Is it possible that the ILH just isn’t up to the usual top billing this season? Or maybe the OIA is much stronger and deeper than we surmised.

If Harrison was at 100 percent (ankle), it would be tough enough. But he hasn’t been completely healthy since Week 1. The slightest of factors, but add Ma‘a and Kanawai Noa’s energy to the equation, and it’s tough to ignore anything. Especially when Kalaheo will be in its second game in roughly 24 hours, while Punahou is well-rested.

Pupule pick: Buffanblu 61, Mustangs 60.

The winner will play the Konawaena-Kahuku winner on Friday, 7 p.m., at Stan Sheriff Center.

# # #

Farrington (22-8, 11-4 OIA) vs. Campbell (17-7, 11-2 OIA)
McKinley bracket, 5 p.m.

Results: These teams met in the OIA quarterfinals at Campbell, where Farrington rallied with fullcourt pressure to force overtime before winning 60-55. The Governors went on to win the OIA title, knocking off then-No. 1 Kalaheo and then-No. 2 Kahuku. Campbell finished fifth in the OIA, salvaging a state berth. The Sabers rallied to beat KS-Hawaii in the opening round of the state tourney on Wednesday.

Rankings: Farrington, seeded second, is also ranked No. 2 in the Top 10. The Governors were a Top 3 team early in the season, then dropped significantly after a 3-3 start in OIA play. Campbell was ranked for much of the season, but dropped out of the Top 10 recently.

Skinny: Campbell’s struggle against Farrington’s 2-1-2 fullcourt and halfcourt pressure was tough for fans to swallow in that OIA quarterfinal loss. The plus result, however, is that the Sabers were better against pressure in Wednesday’s state-tourney game against KS-Hawaii.

The Sabers have enough ballhandling with PG Jomar “Jett” Gapusan and Michael “Taco” Merchant to handle most defensive pressure. Where they struggle is with help from their wings. When they opted to spread the court four-corners style against KS-Hawaii, it was telling that coach Wyatt Tau had his 6-7 senior, David Marrero, as the safety valve in the middle of the court.

Marrero has good hands and court vision from that vantage point. He’s also a good free-throw shooter and, by far, the best shot blocker in the state. He had seven swats on Wednesday.

The Governors are not a great shooting team, but they have morphed into a team with great shot selection in recent games. The only blip on the radar was the first few minutes against Kahuku in the OIA final, when they forced up difficult shots against a tall wall of defenders at the rim and fell behind 11-2. They got back to smart decision-making and won 48-44 against a heavily favored foe.

The Sabers know they can compete with Farrington already. Now comes the test. How will they attack Farrington’s extended defensive pressure? It’s easier said than done because of the Govs’ high hoops IQ, but more so because of the one-man defensive wrecking crew, Ranan Mamiya.

Though he’s roughly 5-11, Mamiya may be the best defensive player in the state. When he’s not tipping and deflecting passes, he swoops in from the 3-point arc to block shots above the rim. His athleticism is breathtaking and off the charts.

X Factor: Lamart Dudley. The rest of the Sabers know their roles well, but it’s Dudley (10 points, 14 rebounds vs. KS-Hawaii) who had the biggest potential in this tourney. When he’s knocking down elbow jumpers and attacking the rim, the Sabers are in position to win. He’s tall enough (6-1) and quick enough to exploit gaps in the paint, and a miss by Dudley from mid- or short range can be easily rebounded by Marrero. It’s not always pretty, but it’s a winning formula.

Pupule says: Farrington likes to play man or 1-2-2 zone, and though Campbell also uses a 1-2-2 zone, it had some difficulty against KS-Hawaii’s version of the same zone defense. Campbell likes to use Marrero and his wingspan at the top of that zone, but the Govs like to work the low-post game for layups and extra passes for more layups.

Campbell looked very strong in man defense last night, but KS-Hawaii is not quite as beefy and physical as Farrington. Nobody has played more inspired basketball than Farrington in the past week. Campbell will have to match or surpass that intensity, but I don’t know if that’s who they are. The Sabers seem like a group of nice, hard-working players, but getting physical inside as a team? We’ll see.

Pupule pick: Governors 58, Sabers 55, OT.

The winner will play the Lahainaluna-‘Iolani winner on Friday, 5 p.m., at Stan Sheriff Center.

# # #

Lahainaluna (24-2, 14-0 MIL) vs. ‘Iolani (16-7, 8-4 ILH)
McKinley bracket, 7 p.m.

Results: These teams have not met this season. Lahainaluna won the St. Francis preseason tourney and fought off perennial power Baldwin and upstart Maui to win the MIL. ‘Iolani finished second in the ILH and is the defending state champion.

Rankings: MIL champion Lahainaluna is seeded third and ranked No. 6 in the Top 10. ‘Iolani is ranked No. 5 in the Top 10.

Skinny: The Lunas haven’t faced a consistently difficult lineup of opponents, but what they showed in preseason was a lot of balance, patience and skill. They aren’t as deep as ‘Iolani, but they have plenty enough to compete.

Their role as an underdog, even as a seeded team, should provide motivational fuel, if needed. Cyrus Kama, a 6-4 senior, was solid in last year’s state tourney and there was talk during the summer that he might transfer to Kalaheo. He stayed home, of course, and teams up with 6-5 Ryan Madeira to give the Lunas a formidable front court.

The Lunas have a solid backcourt in slasher Josh Chapital and point guard Marvin Sidon. When they beat Chestermere (Canada) in the St. Francis tourney final, it was the guards who stood out with their ball control and discipline against a very tall squad.

The Raiders have gotten a nice boost from Robby Mann in recent games. Hugh Hogland had a key role in yesterday’s second-half rally against Leilehua, and Erik Yamada continues to play stellar ball on both ends of the court.

As a whole, the Raiders looked a little gun-shy last night against the Mules’ 1-2-2 zone, but their patience has been far more of a positive than a negative in the past two seasons. They’ll need more of it tonight against a Lunas squad that might be equally patient and tough to beat on the glass.

X Factor: Pikai Winchester. The stout shooting guard has been a factor despite having a reserve role. His 3-point shooting can propel the Raiders at any moment, and they count on him in the clutch. He may have missed the potential game-winning 3 against Punahou a week ago, but there’s no doubt they trust him immensely. If there’s a hole in Lahainaluna’s defense, he and Zach Gelacio can take advantage from deep.

Pupule says: This has the makings of a low-scoring game, probably in the 30s. Will the Raiders have enough gas left in the tank?

Pupule pick: Raiders 39, Lunas 34.

The winner will play the Farrington-Campbell winner on Friday, 5 p.m., at Stan Sheriff Center.


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