They were once the kneelers on canvas, counted out of title contention.
Each of the teams in tonight’s Final Four at the New City Nissan/HHSAA Boys Basketball Division I State Championships was left for dead, so to speak, after losing in their respective league playoffs. Kahuku, loser in the OIA final. Kalaheo, loser in the OIA semifinal. Campbell, loser in the OIA quarterfinal.
Those three teams have one thing in common: they were oppressed and defeated by the Governors of Farrington.
‘Iolani? The Raiders just couldn’t get over Punahou, losing in the ILH tourney final.
But now, Farrington and Punahou are history, league champions — the top two seeds and top two teams in the rankings — who could not get past the state quarterfinals. That’s how brutal this season of parity has become. We knew it could happen. It certainly did. Evolve or die. Revenge served? Yes.
More might be on the way, served cold, perhaps. More likely served with a flying elbow or open corner 3. This isn’t zombie action, with the dead coming back alive. It’s the state tourney, where anything is possible, but usually doesn’t ferment. In 2015, ohh yes, the crazy is on!
It could get crazier. There hasn’t been a state-title matchup in Division I of two public schools since 1996, when Moanalua and Kalaheo met.
Kahuku (18-4, 12-2 OIA) vs. Kalaheo (29-3, 13-1 OIA)
Semifinal round, Stan Sheriff Center, 7 p.m.
Results: Kahuku rallied to edge Moanalua 49-48, then toppled Konawaena 67-45 in the quarterfinals. The Red Raiders finished second in the OIA, losing to Farrington in the finals. Kalaheo outgunned Maui 77-65 before stunning top-seeded Punahou 64-48 in the quarterfinals. Kalaheo was ranked No. 1 for most of the season before falling to Farrington in the OIA quarterfinals.
Rankings: Kalaheo dropped to No. 3 in the Top 10 this week. Kahuku fell to No. 4.
Skinny: After being vanquished by Farrington last week, these two teams have gotten stronger. In fact, all three teams beaten by Farrington in the OIA playoffs have reached the Final Four of the state tourney.
Kahuku hasn’t necessarily gotten better when it comes to its vulnerabilities. The Red Raiders routed Konawaena, but still committed 26 turnovers. Konawaena used a deep diagonal pass to dissect Kahuku’s 1-3-1 halfcourt traps, the defensive set that usually begins with Samuta Avea pounding the hardwood with both palms and his teammates following in unison.
Konawaena scored enough on that pressbreaker for Kahuku to junk the trap and rely strictly on its 2-3 matchup zone, and that was plenty enough to thwart the spunky Wildcats. Konawaena shot just 29 percent from the field.
Another stat worth noting: Konawaena hustled for 14 offensive rebounds. The ‘Cats just couldn’t do much with them against that frontline wall of Denhym Brooke (6-7), Hyrum Harris (6-6) and Avea (6-5). Kahuku’s big reserves — Tamanui Nagy (eight points), Bradlee Anae (six rebounds), Kesi Ah-Hoy — continue to play within themselves.
Kalaheo should be on a roll again no matter who they play. The Mustangs took top-seeded Punahou right to the rack, and the Buffanblu’s outstanding defenders couldn’t stop Kaleb Gilmore (25 points). Even when Gilmore sat with foul trouble, Kalaheo’s reserves stepped up and preserved that double-digit lead.
That’s probably what’s most astounding, even scary, about what Kalaheo did last night. Without Gilmore — “My team didn’t need me,” he said — the Mustangs ran their offensive sets, spread the floor, Kupaa Harrison led beautifully as a point forward. There’s no doubt the Mustangs need Gilmore, despite his humble observation. If he doesn’t play, that means youngsters like Captain Whitlock and Ashton Arnold have to play extended minutes, which they are capable of, but it wouldn’t be on par with Gilmore’s production.
That’s not saying anything new. There isn’t a guard in the state who can do that. Gilmore is that good, with that much of a thrust to the hoop, and Punahou simply could not deter him. What worked for Gilmore — attacking the rim on a night when officials called it tight — also worked against him defensively.
It remains to be seen how tight the semifinals are called tonight at glitzy Stan Sheriff Center. The Mustangs certainly would prefer that Gilmore stay on the floor, but it has to concern any foe that Kalaheo is almost as good with Gilmore on the bench.
X Factor: Smith and Smith. Kekai Smith stepped up big when Gilmore sat with foul trouble, helping run the offense, but more so, attacking the gaps for pull-up jumpers. His 12 points were essential, and they were all high-percentage decisions. That kind of leadership and experience is not expendable. He was simply clutch, and without his court vision and courage, Punahou’s late first-half run might have turned into a game-changing seizure of the lead.
Then all heck might have broken loose.
Jalen Smith, the 6-5 freshman, didn’t get much done statistically, it’s true. But the former shooting guard battled and battled, and each of his fouls was actually a contribution for the Mustangs defensively, stopping any typical low-post attack by Punahou. In the end, Punahou settled for perimeter shots out of its four-out game, and the taller of the Smiths got the gratification of contributing to a victory with a true, blue collar.
Pupule says: Kahuku has all the towering, explosive and savvy senior talent in the prep world. Harris was MVP of the New Zealand high school championships last summer. Brooke has all the tools to become a bona fide college 3. They’ve got smart guard play in the halfcourt game with Tama Green on the top and Avea and Keanu Akina spotting up. With Avea and Brooke, they have the best 1-2 shotblocking machine in the state.
The Red Raiders haven’t put together a great game against an elite opponent. They’ve had several good games, but the late arrival of the transfers meant that coach Alan Akina didn’t have much time to get his players to gel. What they’ve done in just two months is impressionable enough.
Unlike Punahou, Kahuku has the recipe and the ingredients to muscle Kalaheo down low, to run the break when the Mustangs get into hot/cold mode.
But that’s the rub. What if the Mustangs decide that they don’t want to let Brooke fly upcourt and throw down a handful of alley-oop dunks? What if Alika Smith gets a lead and pulls the ball out? Kahuku has been very dependent on that sticky 2-3 matchup zone, not quite so confident when there’s no choice but to go man-to-man.
Coach Akina doesn’t want his team to fall behind and face that scenario. I wouldn’t blame him. Who would cover Gilmore? Avea is athletic and long enough to give Gilmore a battle, but the risk of foul trouble isn’t worth it. Brooke on Harrison? It could be done, but Brooke is not used to chasing wings or point forwards — though he’s physically capable, for sure.
I still wonder if Kahuku can ever keep the turnovers down, especially against a team that prides itself on man defense like Kalaheo. Twenty-six giveaways against Konawaena.
Weigh all the factors and the scale still tips in favor of…
Pupule pick: Mustangs 67, Red Raiders 61, 2 OT.
‘Iolani (17-7, 8-4 ILH) vs. Campbell (18-7, 11-2 OIA)
Semifinal round, Stan Sheriff Center, 5 p.m.
Results: ‘Iolani rallied to beat Leilehua 37-36, then stifled MIL champion Lahainaluna 44-34 in the quarterfinals. Campbell rallied past Kamehameha-Hawaii 42-34 before avenging a loss to Farrington with a 51-45 win in the quarters. ‘Iolani is the ILH runner-up. Campbell finished fifth in the OIA.
Rankings: The Raiders are ranked No. 5 in the Top 10. The Sabers are unranked after spending much of the season in the Top 10.
Skinny: Which Campbell team shows up tonight, the one that hesitates or the one that leaves no stone unturned? The Sabers started to embrace life in the trenches this week, meaning center David Marrero and forward Lamart Dudley have become double-double forces. When those two are commanding and forceful in the paint, the Sabers are at their best.
‘Iolani loves its man-to-man defense, which means Michael “Taco” Merchant (22 points, four treys against Farrington) will have to work harder to get open looks. Marrero, much like Kahuku’s Brooke, is a smooth shooter who doesn’t look to attack very often. That puts the onus on playmaking PG Jomar “Jett” Gapusan to create opportunities without settling for mediocre shots for himself and his teammates.
That’s why Dudley is key. He can hit the elbow J, and though he has 3-point range, he’s been much more effective attacking the rim, where Marrero can more easily hover and collect offensive boards.
The Raiders have displayed tremendous patience offensively this week, maybe a bit too patient at times, but the results speak for themselves. They won’t settle for a so-so look. Against Leilehua’s 1-2-2 zone, they attacked from the corner with success during their comeback. Against man defenses, they run their sets until they get that open layup or 3.
There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there sure is one in discipline, and if the Raiders win the state title again, it’s because of that self-control.
X Factor: Jayce Bantolina is capable of lifting the Sabers to higher ground. His eight dimes (with just three turnovers) were a huge factor in the win over Farrington. But if he and his teammates are sloppy with their execution, the Raiders will be opportunistic, as always.
Pupule says: This is not the best matchup for Campbell. They’ve never played ‘Iolani this season. They haven’t faced a team this tall or this disciplined. Leilehua had the Raiders on the ropes, but settled for so-so shots instead of grinding the defense down. Can the Sabers beat the Raiders at their game? The only scenario that would be otherwise is if Campbell shoots lights out all night, 1985 Villanova style.
The Raiders are masters of the boa constrictor stranglehold. It isn’t prime-time entertainment for all basketball fans, but it wins championships.
Pupule pick: Raiders 39, Sabers 35.