The brutal OIA East: Adapt or go extinct

Kalaheo head coach Alika Smith shared a congratulatory moment with his son, Payton Kuhia-Smith, on Tuesday. Honolulu Star-Advertiser photo by Krystle Marcellus
Kalaheo head coach Alika Smith shared a congratulatory moment with his son, Payton Kuhia-Smith, on Tuesday. Honolulu Star-Advertiser photo by Krystle Marcellus

For a half, neither team would concede.

Not to each other, but more than that, not to the officials. The crew at Tuesday night’s McKinley-Kalaheo game consistently whistled hand checks, and that left two Tigers with three fouls by halftime. Kalaheo had its share of foul troubles — defensive stopper Kekai Smith was among the Mustangs who sat with fouls early — but made the right adjustments in the second half.

Or rather, Kaleb Gilmore did. Instead of relying on point-blank on-ball pressure beyond the 3-point line, the savvy senior moved his feet relentlessly to stifle his foe. The result was three key steals during a 14-2 run in the third quarter. He was the spark, turning the Tigers’ turnovers into instant points for himself and his teammates, and the visitors never recovered.

Gilmore, the transfer from Maryknoll, had 21 points. In the third, he had five points, three steals and two assists — the kind of activity and efficiency (no turnovers) that leads to triple-doubles over the course of four quarters.

Things had been tough enough on the Tigers, who were sometimes spectacular in preseason. In one week, they knocked off Maryknoll and Kalaheo, and rose to No. 5 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. It’s too early to say whether the undersized team in black and gold has peaked, but without a substantial post game on offense or defense, the Tigers live and die by their strength: Speed.

On Tuesday, it got tougher when Huthifah Abdel-Jawad hurt his back. While he got his back iced, the Tigers seemed to lose a step defensively. Abdel-Jawad doesn’t score a lot, but he’s a key cog on both ends of the court, and his toughness is a must-have for the Tigers.

Dan Villejo had nine points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Two of those blocks came on back-to-back plays in the third quarter, triggering fastbreaks as the Tigers desperately tried to stay in the game. But they committed eight of their 24 turnovers in the third, and by the laws of hardwood, it is highly improbable to win a game when any team has more turnovers than field goals. (Kalaheo committed just eight turnovers.)

McKinley shot quite well against the taller Mustangs — 45 percent — on 15-for-33 accuracy from the field. Solving the turnover puzzle is a major key for the Tigers in a super-loaded OIA East. Six of the division’s seven teams will qualify for the playoffs, which seems like great odds on paper. The East, however, is as tough from top to bottom as it has been in years, maybe decades. The talent level isn’t necessarily greater, but the balance is truly a problem, or will be for one of those seven teams.

While Kalaheo, with its heavy dose of seasoned returnees — Kupaa Harrison had 18 points and six boards on a sore ankle that is still just “80 percent” at best, he said — was already ahead of the pack. Coach Alika Smith rode his talented underclassmen last year, and now he’s got former starters like Alec MacLeod coming off the bench. The senior swingman had 10 points, seven rebounds and three steals in a role he seems to grudgingly accept.

“He likes to study what’s going on and can manipulate their defense,” Smith said. “His energy was great.”

Their second group had already had some sterling performances in preseason. Guard Captain Whitlock plays a grounded, smart game from the point, bringing capable on-ball pressure and making wise decisions with the ball. Kalaheo’s current second five — when their sick and injured subs are available — is very good. Good enough to be a starting unit for a lot of teams in the OIA.

The arrival of 6-4 (or 6-5) freshman Jalen Smith has been a godsend. He didn’t score against McKinley, but he’s a serviceable center when Kalaheo goes to a 2-3 zone, which was basically required in the second half after they picked up fouls playing man defense in the first. Smith’s presence and long arms are enough in the middle to push Harrison and his wobbly ankle to forward.

All in all, Kalaheo, when healthy, is a tough matchup for any foe, especially one that relies on transition points like McKinley. The Mustangs matchup fairly well with their athletic, long hoopsters, and Smith and his boisterous staff continue to sell great defense on their squad.

But McKinley isn’t going down without a fight. Not a lot of teams, I’m guessing, will shoot 45 percent on Kalaheo this year. If and when the Tigers can cut their giveaways in half, say 12 turnovers instead of 24, that’s 12 extra possessions. My estimate is that the Tigers had 55 possessions in all last night, scoring at a rate (including the TOs) of .69 points per possession.

Even if they had continued to lose the ball, those extra 12 possessions would’ve netted (literally) an added 8.3 points. Kalaheo scored 12 points off steals in the first three quarters alone. If (I know, if-if-if) the Tigers can cut that number by half, that’s another six points.

Six less points via steals by Kalaheo and an extra 8.3 points for the Tigers simply by refusing to turn the ball over is a 14-plus point difference. In other words, instead of losing the game during a third-quarter run by an opponent, McKinley would be able to withstand it.

Perfection isn’t required, but improvement certainly is. And the teams that rely heavily on speed — McKinley, Roosevelt, Moanalua, and to a lesser extent, Kaiser and Kalani — can’t afford to lose the turnover battle. Not when the rebounding advantage is 23-15 in the bigger team’s favor.

Of course, it’s all easier said than done. But the teams with the length and size, like Kahuku and Kailua, can overcome a lot of their problems more easily. Kalaheo shot just 16-for-26 from the foul line and still won handily.

In the dreaded OIA East, one team will not qualify for the playoffs, and it’ll be a team that will be better than more than half of the OIA West. It’ll be a painful distinction being Team X, the potential giant killer that was denied postseason opportunity simply because of format, but that’s reality.

The days of OIA West lore, when Waipahu was still in Division I with great scorers like Vernon Tailele, are history. Even Kapolei, which played for the OIA title just a few years ago, is nowhere near where it once was. But the Hurricanes are competitive. So are Campbell and Mililani. Leilehua is a real contender for the league title. Beyond that, we may never see the glory days of Radford — a much smaller school these days — or Pearl City (where have you gone, Kawika Hallums?) again. The Rams and Chargers — few coaches get more out of limited depth and height like Lionel Villarmia does — will compete, but it sure isn’t like the golden years of the 1970s and ’80s.

For now, the teams that are less generous and much more stingy about giving the basketball away will surface in the postseason. That will probably lead to lower-scoring games as the pressure to qualify mounts. The same track happens in the hyper-pressured ILH every year.

The Mustangs found a way to take their hands off and get turnovers in a key stretch on Tuesday. Smith switched his team to a 2-3 zone. Gilmore used his feet. Adapt or die. That’s the true mantra of the OIA East this season.


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