Saint Louis, Kohala prepared to defend state titles, but…

The Saint Louis Crusaders are back to defend their state championship. Another title would make it a three-peat for Coach Dan Hale and his squad. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

Quarterfinal and semifinal rounds always have that certain intrigue.
Does Kalaheo continue its late-season run? Can Kahuku, the OIA’s fifth-place team, knock out OIA champion Leilehua? Does BIIF champion Kamehameha-Hawaii have the firepower to beat Punahou?
Division II is equally unpredictable. With Trey Ambrozich out of the state tournament due to a back injury, can ILH champion University fulfill its potential? Kohala is the defending state champion, but will we see early-season Kohala or Kohala v2.0?

Thursday, Feb. 22
At Punahou
No. 9 (OIA 6) Kalaheo (20-13) vs. (#4 seed/MIL 1) Baldwin (14-6), 5 p.m.

This is fascinating in many ways. Kalaheo had a busload of talent, training hard through the summer, making 7 a.m. shootarounds. Taishawn Jeffery arrived shortly before the season, but it took more time to develop chemistry. Now, the Mustangs have an extraordinary number of players who can score double-digits any night, and they have just enough size to deal with giants, which they did on Monday by knocking out Mililani. CJ Bostic and Jaron Gilmore have stepped up, while Josh Schutter has developed into a stellar two-way performer.

Baldwin had a rocky preseason and a diminished travel roster, but with its full squad, first-year (interim) head coach Jordan Helle’s team has flourished. Trotter Apo remains the most prominent Bear, but the team that struggled at the Surfrider Holiday Classic has come a long way. This is just a difficult matchup against a hot Kalaheo squad.

Of course, this could work the other way around. Baldwin did not have consistently elite competition in the MIL — D-II Seabury Hall is legit and a Bears-Spartans showdown should have been mandatory. However, Baldwin could be somewhat of a mystery to the Mustangs.

At Punahou
No. 6 (OIA 3) Nanakuli (19-11) vs. No. 1 (#1 seed/ILH 1) Saint Louis (24-5), 7 p.m.

The Golden Hawks have been spectacular by any measure this season. A multitude of scorers, uptempo and aggressive, skilled and cohesive. They were a tough team to beat last year, and with Zion Donnell home for senior year, they are back in states for the first time in 47 seasons. They are also at No. 6 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, their highest ranking in decades.

It’s not easy beating any team with a Dragon (Kekahuna) and a Blaze (Kaululaau).

Saint Louis is the two-time defending state champion. The Crusaders had their toughest regular season in the Dan Hale era, going 7-3 to share second place with Maryknoll. They eked past the Spartans on a last-second buzzer-beating layup by Jordan Nunuha, then trounced Punahou for the league title.

Pupu Sepulona remains an enigma for opponents. Great footwork and power in the low post. A deadly mid-range and perimeter shot. Being a lefty only makes the 6-foot-3 junior more difficult to contain. Doubling him hasn’t worked as well lately as Saint Louis’ deep well of talent has clutched up in the biggest moments of the season.

There may be no other team that can surpass the Crusaders in their commitment to defense. Getting every player on board with grit is easier said than done, but they make it happen. Nanakuli pushed hard in a 70-63 preseason loss to Saint Louis. This is going to be a tenacious battle.

At Saint Louis
No. 8 (OIA 5) Kahuku (21-5) vs. No. 3 (#2 seed/OIA 1) Leilehua (22-4), 5 p.m.

If Kahuku is playing its best basketball of the season, the timing is right. They returned from Kamehameha-Maui with a 53-42 win and now get to bring their brand of basketball to the quarterfinal round. Their length and defensive prowess are rare, but as they go deeper into the post-season, they do need a substantial game from Kache Kaio. Kash Daley stepped up with 20 points at KS-Maui, while Tiki Akina-Watson (11 points) and Kahler Vendiola (10) came through. Daley scored 18 of his points from the arc (6 for 8), which could be sustainable through the tourney, but defenses will likely stay tight on him. Kaio had seven points and 11 boards against KS-Maui, providing size and athleticism in the paint. They’ll probably need a little more against the Mules.

Leilehua is the team that was a bit under the radar through the preseason and regular season. When fully healthy, they are a menace on defense. Trystin Stevens, at 6-3 with long arms and quick feet, is a major defensive weapon. His 3-pointer with :06 left boosted the Mules over Mililani in the OIA title game. Momentum should be on their side, but like all Leilehua-Kahuku matchups, the intensity in this game will be off the charts.

At Saint Louis
No. 2 (ILH 2) Punahou (21-6) vs. (#3 seed/BIIF 1) Kamehameha-Hawaii (15-2), 7 p.m.

KS-Hawaii has tremendous talent with swingman Kawohi Huihui (17 ppg) and guard Kiai Yasso (15 ppg). Either is capable of a 30-point night. The question remains, can the Warriors keep Punahou off the boards. The Buffanblu dominated Kailua, 39-24, in rebounding, and their 2-2-1 press took control of the game in the second quarter of a 76-40 win.

Punahou still hasn’t played a penultimate game yet. James Taras is cranking on all cylinders, while Ayndra Uperesa-Thomas has been up and down in recent weeks. When both of them are at the top of their games, Punahou plays at a level matched by very few teams. It is a key reason when the Buffanblu were No. 1 for five weeks.

At Kaimuki
(#4 seed/KIF 1) Kapaa (20-5) vs. (#5/OIA 1) Kaimuki(14-12), 5 p.m.

Keaka Kauhane makes winning plays, whether it is as a point guard type distributor, or a slasher with 3-point efficiency. The senior guard (16 ppg) is a crucial weapon for the Warriors, who were 10-2 during the regular season. Tristen Scully (12 ppg) is a zone-busting long-range shooter, and Austin Green and Reimel Camacho will provide key roles. Kapaa has not played Kaimuki yet this season, but the matchup should be entertaining for spectators.

Kaimuki loves to run the floor off turnovers and has one of the best rim attackers in the D-II tournament with point guard Jeremiah White. His explosiveness and strength are rare. The Bulldogs’ balance of White (19 ppg), combo guard Daysen Lupica (17 ppg), bigs Iosefa Letuli and Harmon Sio, and 3-point gunner ManDuy Pham are not easy to stop. At 6-5, 235 pounds, Letuli embraces his role as a powerful defender, rebounder and post scorer, but is also key passer in Kaimuki’s four- and five-out looks. Sio, at 6-3, 310, is always ready to attack the rim, but can surprise defenses with his 3-point stroke.

This could be the most exciting, uptempo game of the night regardless of division.

At Kaimuki
(#1 seed/BIIF 1) Kohala (19-2) vs. (ILH 2) Le Jardin (20-11), 7 p.m.

When they’re at their best, there is nothing quite like the sight of Kohala Cowboys basketball. Going back to the Bradley Estabilio years, then to the Lawrence Kauka run, then next-gen Keone and Kalei Emeliano, Travis Van Zant core, then the Benny Alcoran era, the tradition of Kohala hoops has never waned in the decades since.

This current iteration has a solid crew of high-IQ, high-speed ballers led by Kauka brothers Landon and Layden. The senior, Landon (10 ppg), is a classic Kohala point guard who can score at all three levels and has immense defensive skills. The sophomore, Layden (20 ppg), has transformed his 3-point shot into one of the best in the state. Leave him open and the 6-1 swingman can splash six treys in a quarter or half. His strength, however, is as a slasher. His PG skills are innate, able to drive and dish, but his super vertical allows him to follow shots with putback dunks, as he did on one play against Saint Louis in preseason.

Jayden Hook (11 ppg) is a key third scorer, and Isaac Libron is a versatile playmaker from the perimeter in.

Le Jardin is a definite sleeper, a dark horse that has all the balance, size and guard play necessary to make a run to the title game. The Bulldogs played all comers in preseason, taking their licks and giving some, too. They led Kahuku in the third quarter at the Pete Smith Classic before folding, largely because leading scorer Jackson Swirsky sat out with an injury. The 6-5 senior is adept in the post, on the wing and may be their best passer. Swirsky (15 ppg), Giovanni Olivia (12 ppg), Kai Kimhan (11 ppg), Shane Kitty and Laakea Kamahele are cohesive. This group is aggressive, sometimes to a fault, and a 20-point lead and shrink to 10 within a few minutes, but this is the way for Le Jardin.

The matchup is a tough one for the Bulldogs, but their willingness to push tempo and launch open 3s should make this a whirling-dervish, Tasmanian devil kind of game. One of the many games I wish I could witness.

At Kalani
(#3 seed/MIL 2) Seabury Hall (23-2) vs. (BIIF 2) Pahoa (6-5), 5 p.m.

The Spartans are, arguably, the best team in the MIL regardless of division. I don’t know why there aren’t more exhibition games between D-I and D-II teams. Yes, schedules can be tight. Late in the season, coaches like to rest their teams rather than add games and risk injury and momentum. Yes, Seabury Hall beat King Kekaulike (twice) and Lahainaluna in preseason, but fans would have loved a Seabury Hall-Baldwin showdown. Did I mention that earlier?

Returnees Bromo Dorn (15 ppg), Kobe Garcia (14 ppg) and Zack Devane (10 ppg) have come through. The Spartans play quick, smart, old-school basketball without a dependency on the 3-point line. At 6-4, Dorn is a constant force. The Spartans are possibly the tallest team in the D-II bracket not named University. The Spartans have only two losses. One was to Kohala, 65-58, and the other was to Corona (Calif.).

Pahoa is probably the biggest mystery team in the tournament. The Daggers lost to Kohala in the BIIF final, 54-38. Against D-I Kamehameha-Hawaii, it was a 69-45 loss. Kyran Canete (15 ppg) and Donivan Lynch (11 ppg) lead a balanced attack.

At Kalani
(#2 seed/ILH 1) University (22-4) vs. (OIA 2) Aiea (8-14), 7 p.m.

What will the Jr. ‘Bows do without Ambrozich? Their Cinderella season began with a stunning 67-64 win over Saint Louis at the Surfrider Holiday Classic, and momentum was a big green wave. They ran low on fuel in a 45-37 loss to Kailua, later beat Kalaheo, 58-53, and lost to Maryknoll, 46-35.

The argument for ULS to move up to Division I was debated by fans throughout the offseason, but with Ambrozich ailing with a stress fracture in his back, the Jr. ‘Bows struggled to beat Hanalani, 52-46, and lost to Le Jardin, 65-62. There’s lots of firepower with Koa Laboy, Alika Ahu, sharpshooter Kenna Quitan and floor general Todd McKinney, but key reserves are young and inexperienced. Can they step up this week?

Aiea comes into the tournament a bit on edge and absolutely hungry after blowing a 20-point lead in the OIA final against Kaimuki. Coach Rob Godinez’s team had a busy preseason, losing to Maryknoll in a rout, then to Kapaa, 81-68, on the Garden Island. Na Alii also lost to Hanalani, 61-53, and Seabury Hall, 58-38. They also lost to Kamehameha, 71-39, prior to the regular season.

The OIA’s meshed schedule is a big plus for D-II teams. Aiea took its lumps from Radford, Leilehua, Mililani, Kapolei (a 58-55 humdinger), Campbell and Nanakuli. As a true mid-sized school, Aiea came through in the playoffs with wins over Waianae and Farrington to qualify for states.

All the efficiency in those first two quarters against Kaimuki were upended by rushed shots, often too quickly taken for hustlers Shealand Kazama and Santi Sarbeland to crash the offensive glass. Stefan Ognajanovic (14 ppg) and Taylor Moku (13 ppg) are a tough cover for most defenses, but from the starting five to the end of the bench, Aiea can potentially win this tournament if their flow is right. If it isn’t, it’ll be another heartbreaker.

Friday, Feb. 23
At Punahou
5 and 7 p.m.
At Saint Louis
5 and 6:30 p.m.

At Kaimuki
University-Aiea winner vs. Seabury Hall-Pahoa winner, 5 p.m.
Kohala-Le Jardin winner vs. Kapaa-Kaimuki winner, 7 p.m.

At Kalani
University-Aiea loser vs. Seabury Hall-Pahoa loser, 5 p.m.
Kohala-Le Jardin loser vs. Kapaa-Kaimuki loser, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 24
At Blaisdell
Fifth place, 9 a.m.
Third place, 1 p.m.
Championship, 7 p.m.

At Blaisdell
Fifth place, 11 a.m.
Third place, 3 p.m.
Championship, 5 p.m.


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