Tolu Smith is just a high school senior, and he is the real deal.
His spin moves near the block recall a young Hakeem Olajuwon, though the “Dream” was a college freshman when he was unveiled to American roundball enthusiasts.
Smith’s soft touch near the rim? Very Timmy. As in Tim Duncan, which isn’t a stretch considering Smith is 6-foot-10 — like Olajuwon — and Duncan was listed at 6-11 through his NBA career. Smith’s father, Galen Smith, played college basketball at the University of Virgin Islands — Duncan’s homeland.
No, Smith isn’t quite an NBA player yet, but his resilience and fire were on display for the first time in a Hawaii high school game. The 200 fans at Campbell’s gym got a treat as Smith pumped in 27 points as Kahuku rallied from a 13-point deficit for a 43-41 win over the tough Sabers on Wednesday night.
Marcus Damuni’s putback with 13 seconds left gave Kahuku the lead for good. An off-balance 3-point try by Robert Hutchinson would’ve won the game for Campbell, but missed at the buzzer. All in all, it was a gritty effort for Kahuku in its first nonconference game of the season.
“There was no pressure to it. I’m just there for rebounds and putbacks,” said Damuni, a junior returnee from last season’s state-title team. “I’m not really a shooter. I just used my length.”
The Red Raiders were rusty shooting from the perimeter, but there was non-stop defensive intensity, bodies flying everywhere for loose balls and rebounds.
“We had to lock down on defense and try to force turnovers,” said Robbie Sauvao, a sophomore. “Tolu carried the team on his back.”
Smith, a commit to Western Kentucky, doesn’t see himself that way.
“It’s a team effort all the way,” he said. “We’re all like family. We talk to each other.”
Damuni has the freedom to shoot more, Red Raiders coach Brandyn Akana said.
“He can shoot it, but he’s a very good rebounder. He proved it last year at the ‘Iolani Classic, got a lot of big rebounds. There’s going to be some times when if they’re not guarding him, he’ll knock it down,” Akana said. “Marcus gets it, and he’s going to be one of the best rebounders in the OIA.”
Smith wasn’t double-teamed very often, but Kahuku was intent on running its man-to-man offense in game one of a long season ahead. He still managed to score 13 points in the first half.
The second half was Campbell’s for a time. The Sabers got a straight-away 3 by Henry Nixon, and after Hutchinson drove for a clever reverse layup past Smith, the home team was ahead 34-21 in the third quarter.
It would have been, no question, a monumental victory for Campbell. Instead, the visiting Red Raiders played like a team backed into a the corner, diving for every loose ball, crashing the boards hard for every rebound. After Nixon left the game with leg cramps, things only got tougher for Campbell.
The key factor in Kahuku’s comeback: an emphasis on getting the ball inside to Smith against Campbell’s man defense. After Damuni drove and fed Smith for a dunk, Kahuku was within 36-35 with five minutes remaining. Moments later, Smith swished two free throws to give the Red Raiders the lead.
Sol-Jay Maiava drove baseline for a reverse layup, and Sauvao hustled for a putback, capping a 20-5 run by Kahuku for a 41-36 lead.
Campbell refused to back down, getting a 3 from Mitchell Williams, who led his team with 15 points. After missing a 1-and-1, the Sabers missed an open 3. Andrew Mersburg corralled the offensive rebound, but missed a 1-and-1. The ball went out of bounds off Kahuku, though, and Mersburg tied the game at 41 on a tip-in.
However, Campbell fouled Maiava at midcourt with 15.3 seconds left. Maiava missed his 1-and-1, but Damuni came to the rescue with his putback for the lead. Campbell called time out with 5.1 seconds left, and Hutchinson had just 2 seconds when he got the ball roughly 23 feet from the rime, left with no choice but the try a heavily contested desperation shot.
“I think we could’ve won,” said Hutchinson, who finished with 10 points. “Kahuku is a great team, but we let this one go.”
The Red Raiders are less than two weeks removed from their run to the state championship game. Akana doesn’t expect them to have their shooting touches or basketball legs quite yet. He was hoping to see some execution of an offensive set that requires a lot of reps. It would’ve been simpler to just pound the ball inside to Smith, who did begin to draw double- and triple-team attention before receiving passes in the second half.
In the first half, though, the Red Raiders seemed content to run their offense rather than pound the rock inside every time. Rather than become one-dimensional, the Red Raiders attacked the rim consistently, but also consistently missed from the field. The offense became more efficient running through Smith during the second-half rally.
“He’s a great passer, so if guys help on him and cheat, he’ll find the open man,” Akana said. “Campbell is a much better team this year, some great players with size, and it’s not an easy place to play. That’s why I said, we’ll make the drive from Kahuku to Ewa, and our guys need to know this would be a business trip. It was a good battle tonight, a very good battle.
“Campbell’s good. They’re going to be one of the favorites. They’re doing really well. I’m happy for them.”
Kahuku? Sauvao is a quiet, focused leader.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.