Saint Louis leads a wide open field at hoops state tourney

In 2022-23, Pupu Sepulona was the engine that never stopped. The 6-foot-3 sophomore averaged 19 points and eight rebounds per game as Saint Louis captured its second state title in a row. Sepulona was voted All-State player of the year. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

Here’s a look at Monday’s opening-round matchups in the Heide & Cook/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships bonus notes and a few thoughts on all things roundball.

Monday, Feb. 19
Opening round

(OIA 3) Nanakuli (18-11) at (BIIF 2) Hilo (13-4), 4 p.m.

This could be a rollicking good time for fans as the Golden Hawks bring their explosive, tenacious style of hoops to Waianuenue Ave. Zion Donnell, Blaze Kaululaau, Dragon Kekahuna fuel the Nanakuli attack, while post man Vainuupo Fanuaea has developed tremendously.

Hilo has the genetics of a great hoopster of the past. Payton Pana, son of former great Ben Pana, has led the way for the Vikings. Can Hilo pull off an upset win? The Viks have not beaten a Top 10 team yet. Nanakuli pushed No. 1 Saint Louis before losing, 70-63, to open preseason. The Golden Hawks also lost at Kailua, 49-46, nearly beat Leilehua in a 60-53 battle and went to overtime before losing at Mililani, 47-42. They were 0-8 against ranked teams before going to Kahuku, where they had lost in preseasons, and winning, 58-55, in the OIA playoffs.

Nanakuli then went back to Kailua and won, 62-48, in the OIA third-place game.

(OIA 5) Kahuku (20-5) at (MIL 2) Kamehameha-Maui (10-11), 4 p.m.

Kahuku is on the road for a third year in a row to begin state-tourney play. They are tall, long, athletic and have been unpredictable in the post-season. Most nights, they go as far as post scorer Kache Kaio goes.

KS-Maui has a superb two-sport standout in Dylan Schnitzer, who scored 23 points in the MIL championship game loss to Baldwin.

(OIA 6) Kalaheo (19-13) at (OIA 2) Mililani (21-5), 6 p.m.

History isn’t necessarily on the side of the OIA’s second-place team in the state tourney. Last year, Mililani was OIA runner-up and lost on day one of the big dance. The Trojans are coming off a tough 49-48 loss to Leilehua in the OIA title game on a night when Tim Dorn had 21 points, 12 boards and seven blocks. The 6-7 sophomore also missed a 3 at the buzzer, and coach Garrett Gabriel pointed out that teammate LeCedric Brown was open on the baseline for a shorter, easier shot.

Clutching up can be a two-way street, but Gabriel, the former football and basketball star at Pac-Five and Maryknoll, can’t help wondering what it will take for his team to reach its potential.

Meanwhile, Kalaheo is possibly the scariest of the darkhorse candidates. CJ Bostic and Jaron Gilmore are scoring in bunches late in the season, while versatile Josh Schutter has stepped up as a distributor and defensive stopper in addition to his role as a scorer. Peyton Smith remains one of the streakiest long-range gunners in the state, capable of splashing six treys in a row.

In fact, Smith was unstoppable with four 3-pointers in the first half when Mililani and Kalaheo met in preseason. Point guard Taishawn Jeffrey has had a full season to learn the system and mesh with his teammates. Kalaheo’s best game might still be ahead.

(OIA 4) Kailua (21-5) at (ILH 2) Punahou (20-6), 6:30 p.m.

The Surfriders played some of their best basketball early in the season, knocking off then-No. 1 Maryknoll, and for a long stretch, were unbeaten in OIA East play. Punahou was No. 1 for most of the ILH regular season, but a stunningly lopsided 60-42 loss to Saint Louis in the league title game knocked the Buffanblu into unseeded territory.

Kailua has relied heavily on sophomores Maddox Pung and Dylan Kunz, and senior center Noa Donnelly. Guard Skyler Unten has stepped up as another reliable scoring option. The late-season plunge, however, with losses to eventual league champion Leilehua and Nanakuli, could rattle most young teams.

Punahou’s long gap between games — 18 days — was clearly a factor in the loss to Saint Louis, a team it had beaten twice in the regular season. But there’s this: while winning their first eight games in ILH play, the Buffanblu didn’t need to evolve. With two losses in their last three games, the opportunity to build battle scars and become better is there. Saint Louis went through that process. Punahou is likely to do the same. For seniors Ayndra Uperesa-Thomas and James Taras, the sense of urgency has never been stronger.

Thursday, Feb. 22
At Punahou
Mililani-Kalaheo winner vs. (#4 seed/MIL 1) Baldwin, 5 p.m.
Hilo-Nanakuli winner vs. (#1 seed/ILH 1) Saint Louis, 7 p.m.
At Saint Louis
Kamehameha-Maui/Kahuku winner vs. (#2 seed/OIA 1) Leilehua, 5 p.m.
Punahou-Kailua winner vs. (#3 seed/BIIF 1) Kamehameha-Hawaii, 7 p.m.
At Kaimuki
(#4 seed/KIF 1) Kapaa vs. (#5/OIA 1) Kaimuki, 5 p.m.
(#1 seed/BIIF 1) Kohala vs. (ILH 2) Le Jardin, 7 p.m.
At Kalani
(#3 seed/MIL 2) Seabury Hall vs. (BIIF 2) Pahoa, 5 p.m.
(#2 seed/ILH 1) University vs. (OIA 2) Aiea, 7 p.m.


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