It’s been more than a week, but really, the Owls of Mid-Pacific really are rising. A 39-38 win over then-No. 2 Kaiser at the ‘Iolani Classic was a stunner. I was chatting with legendary University High boys basketball coach Eric Au at the Punahou Invitational on Tuesday night. Coach is retired, but still an astute observer and fan of high school basketball. He’s seen just about every top team on the island of Oahu, but he was not there when MPI upset Kaiser in that mid-day matchup in the cool, air-conditioned confines of ‘Iolani Gymnasium.
Coach Au, like a lot of fans, hasn’t seen a lot of Owls basketball. Neither have I, but I’ve seen just enough of them at A) less than full strength, and B) way, way, way below full strength to know that they’re going to make life in the ILH even more horrific for opposing teams.
MPI’s win over Kaiser doesn’t erase a roller-coaster preseason, and Owls coach Ryan Hirata would be the first to note that his team is far from its pinnacle. But the work continues and they keep getting better. So does the spirit and will to battle. The Owls were down 23-7 at one point against Kaiser.
“We came out very week, thinking that we deserve to be there,” said Zion Shepherd, whose putback in the final seconds gave the Owls the lead for good. “Coach kind of told us that we’re scared and that struck some realism into us. We realized that we have to play our game. We couldn’t let them crash the boards like they were doing.”
Hirata spent much of his energy during the first half imploring his team to dig in and protect the rim.
“We are not a good enough team to take anybody lightly. Kaiser is a great team with a great coach, and they’re a great rebounding team,” Hirata said. “The one thing we cannot let happen is not having effort and energy. You can control defense and boxing out. It’s what builds programs.”
It was both an entertaining and kooky game at times, particularly at the finish. Junior sparkplug guard Codey Mita came up with a huge backcourt steal on Kaiser’s inbounds pass, but as he dribbled away from the Cougars, he began celebrating before time expired. He was whistled for traveling. Kaiser got one last chance, and it was a good one: Keoua Mahiko’s turnaround jumper from the foul line after a long inbounds pass. The shot missed and then, the Owls could really celebrate.
“Branden (Kawazoe, Kaiser’s head coach), credit him for drawing up a Christian Laettner shot,” Hirata said.
Moments earlier, Mita banked in a 3-pointer to help stretch his team’s lead.
“That was a big shot he hit. He works on his game a lot and brings energy, always works hard,” Hirata said. “I love to see a guy like that have a huge moment.”
Hirata is not a fan of mental errors, of course.
“I was very angry because we should be aware of the clock. That’s where we need to mature,” he said.
The Owls are currently in California playing in a tournament. They beat Murrieta Valley 58-55 on Saturday and lost to Clovis West 56-48 on Monday. It’ll be hard to top a victory over the No. 2 team in the state, though. Signature win for the new, rising Owls? Probably.
Biggest win in the program’s history? Maybe. There won’t be a whole lot of time to ponder that. The ILH regular season tips off next week, and every team is in the Top 10, if not Top-10 worthy.