Saints march into D-II Big Dance as top seed

Kameron Ng delivers the ball to teammate Noah Kurosawa in St. Francis' 56-51 preseason win over Kahuku. (Dec. 3, 2016) Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser
Kameron Ng delivers the ball to teammate Noah Kurosawa in St. Francis’ 56-51 preseason win over Kahuku. (Dec. 3, 2016) Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

Bigger isn’t necessarily better. That’s the beauty of small-school sports, where fans are often far more passionate, even rabid, compared to their big-city contemporaries.

The Division II bracket of the Snapple/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships tips off today at Kalani and St, Francis High Schools. Here’s a look at eight-team field powerhouses and underdogs, all chasing a title won by University last season. The Junior Rainbows didn’t make it to the big dance this time.

Kalani bracket
St. Francis (23-4, 10-0 ILH D-II) vs. Farrington (8-13, 6-7 OIA)

Tip-off: 7 p.m.
The skinny: The top-seeded Saints are a from a smallish school tucked away into a compact piece of paradise in Manoa Valley, just above the UH-Manoa campus, and off the main roads. Since the construction of their gym a few years ago, the co-ed aspect of a once all-girls school has flourished in athletics. The St. Francis boys basketball program has come along with enough strength that Punahou coach Darren Matsuda expected the Saints to play in Division I this season.

But are the Saints, ranked No. 8 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, beatable in D-II? One of the most common things about an opening-round game regardless of classification or sport is that high school athletes are more prone to emotion, and the expectation level of a program like St. Francis is beyond that of most D-II teams. In fact, the Saints could play their best basketball tonight, or just as easily struggle for awhile.

That’s what makes this matchup more than interesting. Farrington’s hot run cooled in the OIA D-II title game against Kalani. It was the Govs who struggled under the limelight, and when that happens, teams often bounce back stronger and more focused. With the Saints as the No. 1 seed in this tourney, that means the HHSAA seeding committee considered Farrington the No. 8 team.

If the Governors get solid games from their ballhandlers and posts, they’ll stay close with the Saints. Zeke Santiago is a streaky shooter from the perimeter and Reymar Morales can bundle crafty plays into points, but the Govs need some production inside with bigs C.J. Liana and Chris Afe. Both can defend, but a balanced Farrington offense would make the task more efficient.

The Saints have a superb, if streaky, scorer in guard Kameron Ng, who can hit the deep 3, nail mid-range jumpers off the dribble, and drive to the paint. He takes a significant amount of contact at the rim and keeps coming. Collapsing defenses often are punished by the Saints’ long-range gunners. Noah Kurosawa has never hesitated to bust any zone.

The development of Supilani Mailei, a promising college prospect on the football field, has been a huge plus for Coach Ron Durant. They have defensive length and depth with Manoa Kualii-Moe, Wembley Mailei and Takaamoatoa Lautaha, as well as a talented junior, Boris Vukovic.

Both teams saw substantial competition against D-I teams. In the OIA East, Farrington played both D-I and D-II teams. St. Francis’ preseason slate was heavy on D-I competition.

X-factor: The Saints were extremely quick in preseason while freshman Kordell Ng was temporarily on the varsity roster. He was a key part of their nonconference win over Kahuku, which didn’t have center Dan Fotu yet.

Farrington has offensive potential in point guard Felcris Ahadain, who is one of their best 3-point shooters, and slashing swingman Mosi Afe.

Honokaa (22-10, 9-3 BIIF) vs. Kauai (8-0 KIF)
Tip-off: 5 p.m.
The skinny: The Red Raiders are a mystery team, while fourth-seeded Honokaa made its usual annual rounds on Oahu during preseason. The Dragons won the BIIF title with a one-point win over Hawaii Prep and is seeded fourth in this tourney.

Honokaa’s most significant matchups in preseason and regular-season:

L 48-43 @ Roosevelt
W 58-39 @ Le Jardin
L 43-32 Kalaheo
W 37-34 Leilehua
L 63-49 @ Hawaii Baptist
L 58-55 Farrington
W 78-76 Kamehameha-Hawaii
L 78-57 St. Francis
L 49-42 Kamehameha-Hawaii
L 72-64 Konawaena
L 63-44 Waiakea
L 64-61 @ Hawaii Prep
W 51-50 Hawaii Prep

The losses to HBA and Farrington came at the tail end of Coach Jayme Carvalho’s insanely busy, yet fun-filled trip to Honolulu with the team playing eight games in six days. More playing time for everybody!

As usual, the Dragons have quite a bit of athletic talent for a smaller school. Kelvin Falk, Koali Callahan, Kahakea Callahan and Kamuela Spencer-Herring battle inside and outside.

This team may not have the pure shooters of yesteryear, but the competitive drive and toughness are classic Honokaa.

The Red Raiders are led by Bryce Johnson-Cormack and Christian Manera. They were unbeaten in the KIF, but are unseeded in the bracket. That’s the kind of edge that always helps an underdog.

X-factor: Honokaa’s annual trips to Oahu make the postseason rites more of a formality. They’re used to inter-island competition and play mostly D-I teams when they travel. Kauai? They rarely travel, which makes the state tourney a tougher task.

The KIF champion has lost six opening-round games in a row, which explains the seeding committee’s positioning. David Simon, longtime sportswriter at The Garden Island, notes that the 2010 Kauai squad was the last to reach the D-II state semifinal round.

Simon adds that Kapaa was seeded third last year, only to lose to eventual state champion University.

St. Francis bracket
Seabury Hall (19-4, 13-1 MIL D-II) vs. Hawaii Prep (8-7, 7-4 BIIF)

Tip-off: 5 p.m.
The skinny: Another note about St. Francis’ gym — the floor was originally used at an NCAA tournament regional. St. Francis acquired the floor, along with installation and transportation services, for half the normal price. That’s why it is such a beautiful court. They’ve done a nice job with daily maintenance at St. Francis. And the concession stand is a Pupule Top 5 spot statewide with anything from homemade laulau to chicken plates and more.

As for second-seeded Seabury Hall, it’s a wonder that such a small school won the MIL D-II, but the Spartans have done it many times before. Hawaii Prep came within one point of the BIIF D-II crown.

One big question is this: With an exclusively D-II schedule during MIL play, have the Spartans truly been tested? Molokai? The Farmers haven’t been a consistent powerhouse since the days of the Akana brothers. Hana and Lanai? Not this year. And that’s it. The Spartans have wins over University, Baldwin, Kapaa, and a school called Pitt Meadows, but that’s the extent of it.

The University win (42-40) stands out. Seabury Hall probably would have qualified for the D-I state tourney. It’s been a down year all around for the MIL with the exception of Seabury Hall and Lahainaluna. Isaiah Payne and Cameron Hanisch lead the Spartans in scoring.

Ka Makani, which won the D-II state championship in 2014, is following a similar recipe in ’17. Their leading scorer is a boarding student, Matija Vitorovic. This is arguably the most diverse roster in the state tourney, with a mix of players that includes Umi Kealoha — the original Umi being the first ruling chief of the Big Island.

X-factor: Neither team travelled in preseason, but it’s HPA that faced D-I competition throughout the season. And though Honokaa won the D-II title, that’s in name only. The Dragons and Ka Makani are good enough to compete at the D-I level. Seabury Hall, too. It’s just that Hawaii Prep has faced D-I quality basketball far more often.

Kalani (14-10, 8-6 OIA) vs. Le Jardin (15-10, 6-7 ILH D-II)
Tip-off: 7 p.m.
The skinny: The third-seeded Falcons had the benefit of playing D-I teams since day one of preseason, while Le Jardin has been in D-II mode during ILH play. However, LJA’s competition in D-II has included some of the best teams statewide in that classification, and the win over defending D-II state champion University has to be one of the biggest wins in the program’s history.

While the Bulldogs battled key injuries during the season and recovered in time for the playoffs, Kalani has been relatively unscathed. This year’s Falcons completely buy in to Coach Nathan Davis’ jab-and-run approach, and all of their ballhandlers have a knack for drawing contact on those four-corners drives to the bucket.

The blonde bombers — all of the Falcons have bleached hairdos — have enough senior leadership and ballhandling savvy to make defensive work a dreary task for most foes. Ryan Jacobi, Micah Kawano, Toby Mitchell, Kapaa Nishimura and explosive scorer Jaemi Harris are all called on to do everything from bring the ball up against pressure to rebound to defend anywhere on the court. Max Pepe, Kawano, Mitchell, Evan Chiu, Nishimura and Harris will battle on the boards against any bigger teams, and 6-4 Christian Salas gives Davis some key spot minutes.

The Bulldogs began preseason 4-0, then lost to a very good Punahou II squad, and then lost to Kaiser and Honokaa. Their largely successful preseason was kneecapped by seven losses in their first eight ILH games. However, Coach Kenneth Powell’s team got healthy in t he final week of league play and finished with wins over HBA, Hanalani (twice), then won at Damien in the playoffs before knocking out University for the league’s second and last state berth.

Powell has faithfully built the program up with some players who have made big strides in the last two years. Jerry Lawson, Dominic Venezia and Charlie Abe are key contributors.

X-factor: The Bulldogs have struggled at the free-throw line all season. Kalani will be deliberate and rely on those shots at the charity stripe. They were able to patiently dissect Farrington’s defense in the OIA final, taking 36 free throws.

Kameron Ng delivers the ball to teammate Noah Kurosawa in St. Francis' 56-51 preseason win over Kahuku. (Dec. 3, 2016) Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser
Kameron Ng delivers the ball to teammate Noah Kurosawa in St. Francis’ 56-51 preseason win over Kahuku. (Dec. 3, 2016) Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser
Noah Kurosawa of St. Francis launches a 3-point shot against Kahuku. (Dec. 3, 2016) Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser
Noah Kurosawa of St. Francis launches a 3-point shot against Kahuku. (Dec. 3, 2016) Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

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