State boys hoops: Puzzlers and Wow Factors

Two days into the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships, and there are wows, uh-huhs and some moments of silence.

• Kamehameha’s 53-50 double-overtime win over Moanalua last night wasn’t a shocker, but it definitely took the wind out of the sails of a lot of fans who enjoyed Na Menehune’s fastbreaking style this season. The matchup between the defending state champion, Kamehameha, and Moanalua, tilted Kamehameha’s way on styles alone.

The Warriors thrive out of their sticky 2-3 matchup zone. Moanalua often gets open looks from long range by using skip passes, drive-and-kick-out movement. But Kamehameha is built that way, too, with similar strengths. They have some money shooters from deep, and practicing against them daily out of that zone had to help Coach Jesse Nakanishi’s team.

Not only that, but Moanalua doesn’t like to employ a zone defense. By philosophy, Coach Greg Tacon has often espoused tough man-to-man defense. Moanalua was a solid offensive team against zones all season long, but flourished against man defenses. The few times they had difficulty sometimes came against defenses committed to zones, like St. Joseph, Kahuku and, now, Kamehameha.

Still, Na Menehune had their chances to win. Sitting at Radford’s Jim Alegre Gymnasium covering the other quarterfinal games, a few of us tried to follow the Kamehameha-Moanalua game (at McKinley Student Council Gym) by internet.

All in all, it’s always a difficult draw for the OIA champion so early in the tourney. As many coaches know, the second-place team out of the OIA usually gets a less difficult matchup in the quarterfinal, provided that team gets past the opening round.

Double overtime. In other words, a shot here, a shot there, a free throw … it could’ve gone either way. Was this the true championship game of the Division I tourney? Possibly. But everyone moves on. It’s a heartbreaking loss for Moanalua, but moving over to Stan Sheriff Center to play this afternoon will be memorable, too.

Kamehameha? What else would be expected of a team as tough and unselfish and clutch? Chaz Bajet’s return this week from the knee procedure — it involved a progressive new method of rejuvenating cartilage — gives Nakanishi a seasoned, efficient backcourt addition. They’ve got plenty of gunners, but Bajet has always been a steadying influence, a smart playmaker and reliable mid-range shooter. His strength has always been defense, and with the possibility of five games in six nights, Kamehameha can always use a stellar stopper.

They were among the top four teams in the Star-Bulletin Top 10. As long as the format exists as is, this will continue to unfold — two championship-level teams playing in a quarterfinal — in boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball. A lot of early drama for fans, compelling viewing on statewide TV. Oh, and a lot of broken hearts. Can’t avoid those, regardless of what round it is.

• Punahou’s 30-point blowout of Hilo had to be disappointing, but in reality, these are two teams in different worlds. Punahou has been through thick and thin this season, and almost everyone on the roster was together last year under then-coach Dan Hale.

Alika Smith arrived and let his guys play, run, go after shooters at the rim. He kept things light, yet intense. Rugged, yet fun. The Buffanblu have responded well, and their physical abilities are always in play in this style. It helps a lot because they aren’t a deadly shooting team, and with guard Taylor Crabb out (ankle), that’s one less experienced ballhandler against fullcourt pressure.

Hilo has solid personnel, including two transfers from Waiakea, but chemistry wasn’t there early on. The Viks got it together late in the season to win the Big Island Interscholastic Federation title, but a tough draw like Hilo in the quarterfinals meant Hilo had to play at its highest level. That didn’t happen, but realistically, it was a matchup of teams with different levels of familiarity and chemistry. That counts for a lot this time of year. Don’t be surprised if Hilo regroups and wins its remaining games at the Stanley.

• Raider Nation should be proud after their team’s solid 72-53 win over Mililani. Top-seeded ‘Iolani hadn’t played since Feb. 20, but showed little rust last night. The Trojans jumped to an early lead, but the Raiders got lots of energy from Josiah Sukumaran in the paint, and once they got into a groove, Mililani couldn’t do much to stop them.

Kainoa Chu is relentless, far more physical and strong than some players larger and taller. Trevyn Tulonghari’s shooting stroke returned in time for ‘Iolani’s stretch run, and it’s meant the difference between second or third place in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu, and the league title. The 5-foot-11 junior was at his best in the third quarter, stroking open treys and pull-up jumpers as the Raiders took command.

They continue to get productive minutes from perhaps the best bench in the state. Mililani got hearty efforts from Reginald “R.J.” Griffin and the starters, but the reserves just couldn’t match ‘Iolani’s bench. That’s no diss. It’s just ‘Iolani’s depth and quality. Reid Saito would start at guard for almost any other team in the state. Gabriel Vega (6-5) would also start for most teams. Ammon Baldomero? He would be a key point guard as a starter for almost any other team in the tourney, a tough-nosed athlete who is an Old School, pass-first, dive-for-every-loose-ball baller, and there’s no higher level of knowing The Secret.

‘Iolani showed glimpses of greatness and weakness last night, but even without playing a perfect game, they took control within a few minutes in the second half.

Mililani wasn’t the same without Trent McKinney (ankle), who suffered the injury while defending on a shot by Jarrett Arakawa late in the second quarter.

• Where were they? Mililani has some of the most rowdy, robust fans in the state when they play at home. That noise level is on par with some of the best high school hoops crowds I’ve seen anywhere in 20 years of covering preps. But last night, at Radford’s gym, it was ‘Iolani’s faithful fans who raised the decibel level. They showed up in red T-shirts, mostly parents and other adults. Meanwhile, hardly a Mililani fan could be found. It was puzzling, to say the least. I know they were there, but the massive numbers just didn’t exist.

• Kahuku-Lahainaluna was entertaining, messy and, ultimately, a prime-time drama at the finish. Kahuku’s 65-62 win turned out to be the second-closest D-I game of the night. The Lunas were talented, if sloppy (26 turnovers). Sam Kiek, their versatile forward, is clearly one of the top players in the state. He rebounded well against the taller Red Raiders, scored inside and out, and played great defense. Guard Todd Rickard Jr., son of girls coach Todd Rickard Sr. (who guided the Lady Lunas to a state title two weeks ago) is a super-quick guard with a smooth Old School pull-up jumper. His quick hands gave Kahuku ballhandlers all kinds of fits.

When they needed a play, the Red Raiders got key points from Shairone Thompson and Nehoa Akina, but a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter by Sage Kaka was huge. Any time Kahuku gets big shots from Sage or his brother, Jackson Kaka, it takes pressure off Akina, who regularly draws tight defense.

Kahuku is the only semifinal team that isn’t from the ILH, which means the rest of the OIA and possibly the neighbor-island leagues will be rooting for Big Red. They’ll be severely tested tonight by ‘Iolani’s swarming defense. Tulonghari on Akina — now that’s a great matchup!

• What happened in Division II?

For the first time in memory, all four seeded teams lost in a bracket. Roosevelt, Seabury Hall, St. Joseph and University all went down for the count, a total shock at first thought.

But this is also the first time since the D-II tournament was established that there were no first-round byes. No team got a rest in D-II, and that may have been a huge factor. In D-II, where depth is a serious issue, having fresh legs against the seeded league champions is a major benefit.

It certainly helped Pahoa, a tough team from the BIIF that endured close and lopsided losses in a tough East Division full of D-I squads. Isaiah Ekau drew raves from fans and media in East Hawaii, a superb athlete who matured as a senior and became a leader, as Hawaii Tribune-Herald sportswriter Bill O’Rear told me recently.

Ekau scored 31 points in the win.

Seabury Hall, from all accounts, has size and talent, but lacks experience. Coach Scotty Prather has the Spartans headed in the right direction. But that inexperience may have been a factor in the overtime loss to Academy of the Pacific, which got 20 points from 6-3 Micah Dunhour.

The Dolphins have come a long, long way since preseason, when I saw them lose to Pearl City in the seventh-place game of the Pete Smith Classic. Even then, they showed a lot of potential with Dunhour and some budding prospects. Pretty good for a team that has no gym and usually rides a van to various sites for workouts.

St. Joseph should’ve been the first or second seed in the tourney based on its quality of wins, which included a win at Moanalua in preseason. However, they ran into a fierce Kailua squad, the same one that lost leads to Roosevelt in two OIA White playoff games. Kailua has the talent of a good D-I program, and that’s been the case for a few years now. Heck, they won the state title back in 1982 with George Puou raining in turnaround, 18-foot bank shots. I remember because he shot one over me, smooth as silk. Unstoppable.

This Kailua squad, with Jordan DeCorte on the post and a group of athletic bigs in the 6-foot to 6-3 range, would’ve made the state tourney in D-I. Corey Lau, like DeCorte, is a Division I football recruit (UH) and might be the quickest point guard in either state tourney. They’re fun to watch, and as long as they finish games strong, the Surfriders can seize destiny.

Watching Coach Tim Harrison manage his teams is always interesting. Harrison, a Kailua grad, learned from the best (Merv Lopes) and employs some of the same X’s and O’s. More than that, he is a teacher both in the classroom and on the hardwood floor. Demanding and persistent, but without any screaming or threatening. In other words, the perfect coach for the blue and white.

It’s a difficult defeat for St. Joe, which spent the entire season the Star-Bulletin Top 10 thanks to key wins. They had the best record in the aforementioned tough BIIF East. It’s a school that has suffered dwindling enrollment, yet has a tight-knit crew of basketball players who brought pride and intrigue back. I hope they play well these final two days and enjoy their time together before they split off into life’s next chapter. Coach Harry Scanlan-Leite is a gentleman and general who has as much aloha and respect from his peers as any coach in the BIIF. His leadership is the prime reason why St. Joseph has thrived despite the struggles of enrollment.

Kapaa’s victory over University wasn’t a shock. The teams were evenly matched. Technically, Kapaa was the “fifth” seed. The Warriors have stepped things up in a few sports lately, which is a relief to longtime Warrior fans who always knew they had physical talent in North Kauai. The girls team did pretty well at the state tourney the past two years, including an upset of top-seeded Kahuku last year.

• Two games left for each team and the state title is up for grabs. Division II semifinals are at the outlying high school gyms (Kalani and Farrington), which is a serious bummer for us hoopaholics who want to see it all. (This writer will be happy to receive any and all game DVDs from this week’s games, the ones that weren’t on OC 16.)

Just can’t have it all, though. It’s a blessing enough to have access to UH’s beautiful facility this week.

See you at the Stanley.

Paul Honda, Star-Bulletin


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