Maybe it’s sacrilegious, the way some of us love the holiday basketball season.
I mean, not that we worship the game, but would I be willing to give up basketball, say, for lent? Ai. Yai. Yai. Tough call there.
But Tuesday night was champeeenship night with final games — and the promise of a great postseason — before us. Here’s a quick spin through the three tournaments in Honolulu that closed shop until next December.
>> The Mustangs gallop to the top
Really. With Kupaa Harrison hobbling along at “70 percent”, I didn’t expect a Kalaheo win. Not with new parts in the engine. Not with their best post player barely getting off the ground, as an audience of about 1,000 at Hemmeter Fieldhouse — the place was at least two-thirds filled! — saw from the start.
No, not on this night. Nobody beats a HOT Punahou team on its home court. Not while the Buffanblu are playing at midseason form.
How wrong I was. Whether Kalaheo or Punahou won by a point — the Mustangs blew a lead late, then rallied for a 41-40 win — I just didn’t expect this close of a game. And Punahou did all it could defensively to keep Kalaheo’s sharpshooters covered. But some strange and interesting things developed that has me wondering if this is a unit with the kind of potential that the 2012-13 state-title team had.
>> Zachary Marrotte is ready for prime time
Sure, he’s always been a role player. Not flashy. Not exceedingly superior at any one skill. But he was clutch with two smooth treys in the second half and finished with 10 points, and Kalaheo needed every last one of those points on a night when Harrison simply struggled to get it done on that gimpy ankle against Punahou’s bigs. Marrotte is not a volume shooter. He is simply the X Factor.
>> Kekai Smith, co-starring in the role of Derrick Morgan
Two years ago, it was Morgan who was Mr. Glue, a defensive stopper with the mindset of a linebacker, though he had the body of a point guard. Smith in the on-ball defender every great team wants and needs. He was sticky, and though Jordan Tanuvasa got a few looks, the Punahou guard had to battle and fight for every inch of freedom. Tanuvasa had a miraculous, hanging-in-mid-air circus shot in traffic, which said as much about Kalaheo’s mindful help defense as it did about Tanuvasa’s talent. Smith is still talented enough, plenty enough, to run the point when necessary. But Kalaheo’s depth at the position means he can embrace the mantle and be that guy, the stopper, the defender that every scorer hates to deal with.
“Kekai played great defense on Jordan. He’s physical, stays in front. Not that many guys are willing to do that,” coach Alika Smith said.
>> The Play
On a previous inbounds play from the backcourt, the Mustangs missed a streaking Harrison deep. So Smith drew up a similar play. Alec MacLeod’s subsequent putback with :01 on the clock was, more or less (maybe less) exactly what Smith drew up. Just ask him.
“We drew that up. We were looking for Kupaa long. If he’s not open, Kaleb (Gilmore) would be open,” Smith said. “Then whatever happens when Kaleb drives, Alec had to get to the other side. He busted his butt to get there.”
MacLeod was on the spot, putting the ball back up before coming down.
“I just hustled down the court,” he said.
A friend and fan of Gilmore photo-bombed the interview — which I did via video camera — and then hugged Gilmore, congratulating him. Which would’ve been nothing out of the norm since the 15 or so Kalaheo students screaming and cheering all game long easily won the support-in-the-trenches battle against Punahou’s mostly silent students. But the photo-bomber is a Maryknoll student. Still cheering for his friend, who is now at Kalaheo.
Gilmore couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s a big win for us. Punahou just beat Kahuku,” Gilmore said.
“We’re playing our best right now,” MacLeod said.
>> Defenders of Victory?
Punahou had a size — and girth — advantage on the Mustangs and did some damage on the low post. But the Mustangs aren’t that tall, skinny, young team of a year ago. They eventually held their ground in the post against the tough Buffanblu.
“Coach wants us to pride ourselves on defense. Offense will come,” Gilmore said.
MacLeod is key in that aspect, defending inside with the body of a 2-guard.
“We’ve been lifting in the offseason, and I have a weightlifting class,” MacLeod said.
It’s not like the Mustangs are always going to stop 250-pound posts. But they’re fortified now, able to hold position rather than simply get backed under the basket, and their help-side defense is usually on cue at the right time.
>> Harrison vs. Kam. Friend versus Friend.
Punahou’s J.B. Kam has been unstoppable at times this preseason. A year ago, he was an uncanny long-range gunner. Now he’s added an explosive first step and has the strength to finish and-one plays at the basket — when he gets a lane.
Harrison has played with and against Kam long enough to know his tendencies and tricks. Kam finished with just seven points, hardly getting a chance to drive or launch an open 3. That was a major key for Kalaheo, especially with Harrison unable to produce his usual 15 to 20 points on offense. He still brought the goods on defense.
“I just tried to get a hand up on all those threes and when he goes to the basket, try to stay in front of him and not give him a lot of space. He’s explosive and he gets up real high, one of the top shooters in the state. Stick to him like glue,” Harrison said.
>> Playing the percentages
“Before every game, we kind of go over it,” Harrison noted. “We have a set defense that we like to run where we help each other out. Coach goes over it individually, who we have to guard.”
That also means the Mustangs’ willingness to bring help defense, say on Kam’s attempts to penetrate, will give other Buffanblu open looks from deep. That’s something Harrison said they were willing to accept, less of a gamble and more of a risk evaluation.
Punahou struggled from deep all game long, even when they got open looks. They hit nine 3-pointers in a win over Kahuku. The number against Kalaheo was nowhere close to that.
>> Pun pressure
In the final quarter, coach Darren Matsuda unleashed his squad, forcing Kalaheo into a rash of turnovers that turned the tide. Kalaheo had a four-point lead with 2 minutes left, but couldn’t hold on to the ball. Punahou’s general height edge — with the likes of Micah Ma‘a (6-4), Kanawai Noa (6-1), Kala‘i Santos (6-1) and lightning-quick guards like Dayson Watanabe swarming — turned that deficit into a 40-39 lead in the final minute.
That’s where Harrison is key. He’s not the uber-fast dribbler that Gilmore is, but he’s a lighthouse in the darkness, and his 6-4 frame is useful against any press. He sees over most defenders and can dribble past most bigs who dare to cover him in the backcourt. Most importantly, he has control of his speed and the ball, and the Mustangs always get into their offense after he handles the ball against pressure.
It’s a different role from the one he had as a sophomore on that championship team two seasons ago, occasionally launching treys, coming off the bench as a sparkplug. But that ability to handle the ball fluidly, make the right passes and bring stability and calm in the midst of a storm — there just aren’t a lot of 6-4 guards around these parts. Hardly ever, anyway.
“Kupaa is just a gamer, flat out,” Smith said.
>> They will be back
More than one Buffanblu player and fan talked about the possibility of a rematch with Kalaheo, which, of course, is all about meeting in the state tournament since league play begins this weekend.
Tanuvasa is healthy and, despite the close loss, quite happy. It’s been two long, frustrating years of bad luck with injuries, but he looks as fresh, nimble and strong as ever.
“It’s just another game going into the regular season. We made a lot of progress and gained a lot of confidence,” Tanuvasa said of Punahou’s improvement since the early preseason struggle.
“We played a great team.”
>> Look out for the Lunas
Traditionally, the Baldwin Bears have always been in contention for the MIL title. Always, meaning the last 20 or so years with Jon Garcia, then Wayne Gushiken at the helm. Still, Lahainaluna has had its share of success, and winning the St. Francis Holiday Hoops crown is one step forward for the Lunas.
Lahainaluna has a nice mix of steady guards, slashing wings — Josh Chapital (16 points) is among the best in the state when it comes to stroking the open 3 and attacking the rim under control — and capable bigs. Center Cyrus Kama was on the bench with foul trouble as the Lunas made a huge run — 14-0 — to open a big lead on a very tall Chestermere (Canada) squad on Tuesday night. The Lunas won 47-32 and look like a team poised to take the MIL championship.
“I’m more concerned about us. It’s not that Baldwin and Maui aren’t concerns. They’re great teams, but we have to handle success and adversity the right way,” first-year head coach Jason Justus said.
Some of that adversity came the Lunas’ way earlier in preseason.
“Our transition defense got better,” Justus said of a big improvement this week. “We’ll be facing teams in the MIL that love to run. That’ll be like a track meet.”
Lahainaluna played without 6-2 forward Ryan Madeira, who has 12 stitches in an elbow after suffering an injury last week.
“Physically, we’re very gifted,” Justus said. “I came in with six seniors already on the team, so I’m going to enjoy their leadership for as long as they’re here.”
>> How deep is your love?
Love is great, but having a deep bench is so much better. With four-game tournaments, we get to see exactly what every team really has. Sometimes it’s a matter of talent level. Other times, it’s just about how much a coach really trusts his reserves.
Kapolei and Roosevelt can go fairly deep, and the Hurricanes’ 50-48 win over the senior-heavy Rough Riders was a nice feather in the cap. One day, Roosevelt races to a 77-66 win over University. Twenty-four hours later, they lose to a very young Kapolei team, the same ‘Canes who sustained a 35-point loss to host Saint Louis.
The same can be said of the University Junior Rainbows, who got 11 points from sophomore Radyn Kaleikini in a surprisingly easy 53-41 win over No. 5 McKinley. Kaleikini also had 11 points in the loss to Roosevelt, bumping up his production with more minutes from Coach Walt Quitan.
The Tigers are getting a nice lift from their bench, especially with freshman guard Kyle Moraga. Overall, though, they hit a series of speed bumps this week. I liken their struggles to the kind of rigors that any cross country or track team endures. Roosevelt, McKinley and other speedy, fastbreaking teams can hit a collective wall. Legs go dead.
But give it a week or so and they’ll be fresh and perky again. It just so happens that there will be only four days between tournament play and league play this season. No rest for the weary.