And then there were eight.
The Division I bracket of the Snapple/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships has condensed to a group of eight. In the span of a few hours on Monday night, one-time unbeaten OIA West power Kapolei was ousted. So was one of the beasts of the OIA East, Kailua. As expected, Kalaheo and defending state champion ‘Iolani advanced. But the tourney that once was a bastion held primarily or entirely in Blaisdell Center, then later split apart to high school gyms, and now as far reaching as Hilo (girls) or Kealakekua (boys) has a much different flavor.
The feel is quite different, too, not in bad or good way, either. Used to be a Wednesday-through-Saturday event, quite the marathon, featuring 12 and only 12 teams. (Or eight, if you go back far enough.). Now, the 12-entry D-I dance has four teams eliminated before Tuesday, and Moanalua coach Byron Mello has one comment about the current scenario that administrators voted in favor of recently.
“Ask me what I think of the format,” he said after Moanalua’s 59-43 loss at ‘Iolani. “The format is a disservice to the kids. This is a play-in game now, and if you lose, you’re one and done. For the neighbor island schools, there’s no chance to go to Oahu if they lose.”
In the past, teams would lose in the opening round on a Wednesday (or Tuesday, since the girls normally played Tuesday through Friday and that tourney was held in the spring at Stan Sheriff Center), but have additional games in the consolation bracket. However, administrators voting at the annual conference (HIADA) preferred to be more efficient, and instead of staying on the road, garnering significant costs (hotel, transportation, food), losing teams could now return home much earlier. Mello, however, believes the experience of the event has been diminished. The reward isn’t quite the same, even if it is in a consolation bubble.
“In the best interest of the kids, they should go back to the old format,” he said. “I know money or other things are an issue, but the format should be fair to the neighbor island teams.”
It’s an interesting argument. In this tourney, Konawaena hosted Kailua and won, just two nights after a 224-mile round trip drive to the east side, where the Wildcats lost on a last-second bucket to Waiakea. Playing at home in the state tourney still has a novel feel, and now the Wildcats are riding momentum into the quarterfinal round, which is on Wednesday. Kailua played without center Christian Mejia, who suffered an ankle injury on Thursday in the OIA third-place game against… Moanalua.
In the other neighbor-island game, Kalaheo went to Maui and routed the Sabers. So now, the Sabers’ season is over. But it feels different. Unlike Konawaena, which was in first place during the regular season, the BIIF doesn’t award an automatic state-tourney berth to its regular-season winners anymore (as the ILH does). Konawaena was mostly dominant in the BIIF, a typically strong basketball league. Maui was closer to the rest of the pack in the MIL than it was to the league’s alpha dog, Lahainaluna. In fact, it’s hard to explain how far the MIL has slipped in hoops, let alone understand why former dynastic charter member Baldwin went 2-15.
The general trade is this: neighbor island teams get to host games and still have a two-day gap until the next round. (It’s a three-day stretch between first and second rounds in the girls basketball tournament.) The catch is, no consolation games for first-round losers. Fair? That’s a tough one.
Here’s a look at Wednesday’s D-I matchups.
Kahuku (23-3, 14-0 OIA) vs. Kalaheo (15-10, 10-4 OIA)
Tip-off: 7 p.m.
The skinny: Normally, this has been a rivalry that is often a toss-up on the hardwood. Kahuku has been idle since winning the OIA championship last Thursday. Kalaheo has been superb and underwhelming this season, depending on the health of its lineup. Until Kalaheo or any other team finds a way to consistently keep 6-foot-7 Dan Fotu and 6-6 Samuta Avea out of the key, Kahuku is the justified No. 1 seed.
X-factor: Villanova and Georgetown played in the 1983 NCAA championship game. The Hoyas had Patrick Ewing and an imposing crew of rebounding, shot-blocking athletes above the rim. They were heavy favorites. ‘Nova? A smallish group of team-first guys. This game was played before there was a 3-point line. Imagine that, trying to beat a team with superior height, leaping ability, speed, just about every physical element imaginable. And ‘Nova won. The Wildcats shot an insane 79 percent from the field, just could not miss. There have been all kinds of upsets and craziness in March Madness since then, but SEVENTY-NINE PERCENT from the field has never been duplicated, especially in the biggest game of all.
Kalaheo has enough shooting skills (Captain Whitlock, Noah Woodby, Ryan Pardini) to make this a close game, but Kahuku has the antidote: persistent, physical defense led on the perimeter by Kesi Ah-Hoy and Codie Sauvao.
The last time these teams played, Kahuku rolled to a 27-15 lead by the end of the first quarter. Jessiya Villa finished with 22 points and the big three of Villa, Fotu and Avea combined for 56 points. Kahuku won 81-60 at Kalaheo’s gym.
Waiakea (9-7, 8-3 BIIF) vs. ‘Iolani (21-9, 11-4 ILH)
Tip-off: 5 p.m.
The skinny: Fourth-seeded Waiakea is coming off a stunning win over Konawaena for the BIIF crown. Calvin Mattos, a Star-Advertiser all-state Fab 15 selection last year, sank a game-tying 3, and freshman Kiai Apele — brother of former KS-Hawaii standout Lanakila Apele — stole the inbounds pass for the winning layup as time expired. That was three days ago.
Now the Warriors face the specter of playing the defending champion Raiders, who eliminated Moanalua on Monday. Waiakea has been down this road before. In mid-December, the Warriors played at the ‘Iolani classic, losing to Dr. Phillips (Fla.), Kapolei 58-46 and Punahou 69-51 before beating Kaiser 62-51. The Warriors have solid guard play and Mattos can play any position, but he can’t do everything. There isn’t anyone above 6 feet tall on the roster, which means ‘Iolani’s returning all-state player of the year, Hugh Hogland, could feast in the paint. The 6-9 senior had 18 points and 17 rebounds in the Moanalua game.
X-factor: Moanalua was willing to push the tempo and get a lot of shots off compared to most teams that fall into the lull that ‘Iolani imposes. Waiakea could settle for a slower tempo and hope the Raiders have an off-night. They shot 2-for-7 with eight turnovers against Moanalua’s 2-3 zone in the first quarter. But the math works in ‘Iolani’s favor in that scenario. If Waiakea can get open looks in transition, the more possessions, the better. After all, Hogland and his cohorts will seal off the rim, and the Warriors will get more open looks from the arc on fastbreaks than they will against steely halfcourt defenders like Helam Baldomero.
The senior guard said his team didn’t have the right focus when the game started.
“I know I didn’t,” he said.
That is unlikely to happen again with a back-to-back state championship now in sight.
Punahou (24-5, 11-3 ILH) vs. Konawaena (10-1 BIIF)
Tip-off: 7 p.m.
The skinny: The rest time since Saturday’s ILH championship game has been a gift the third-seeded Buffanblu have appreciated. While ‘Iolani has played seven games in a 10-day span, Punahou played four games in a five-day span, including the title win over ‘Iolani. The biggest plus is that the Buffanblu regularly go deep into their bench. The slower pace of the ILH playoffs would seem to help, at least on paper. Against a younger team like Konawaena that likes to push the ball, Punahou may go back to fullcourt pressure more consistently.
Austin Aukai scored 25 points in Konawaena’s win over Kailua. The 68-55 score brings one question to mind: is Christian Mejia worth 13 points? Between his defense, rebounding and scoring, the answer on most nights is a resounding yes. He had just two points in a loss to Kahuku last week’s OIA semifinals, but that’s going against a supreme front court of taller defenders. Against almost everyone else, Mejia is a production machine. Kailua simply didn’t find a way to replace him.
Now Konawaena goes on the road following what may have been the biggest victory in the boys basketball program’s history. Four Wildcats average in double-digit scoring, including football standouts Kamakana Ching and Austin Ewing, as well as Hauoli Akau. Punahou has evolved this season and become a stronger low-post team with sophomore Duke Clemens using his variety of tools. That element was missing from some of Punahou’s potent teams in the past few years. It’s been five seasons since Punahou won the state title.
X-factor: Konawaena hasn’t played a team quite like Punahou this season, beating McKinley and losing to Kalani in preseason. Waiakea runs the floor, but doesn’t have the interior presence that Punahou does with Clemens, Maninoa Tufono and Beau Whittaker. That trio of defenders down low was enough to battle Hogland and beat ‘Iolani last week. But the other side of the coin is this: if Konawaena has a stretch 5 who can hit the 3 consistently, that presents a challenge for Punahou’s posts. But first, the Wildcats will have to handle Punahou’s fullcourt press cleanly.
Lahainaluna (22-1, 14-0 MIL) vs. Leilehua (14-9, 10-3 OIA)
Tip-off: 5 p.m.
The skinny: It has happened more than occasionally. Leilehua, the sixth and final qualifier from the OIA, knocked off OIA runner-up Kapolei on Monday in overtime, 51-49, after trailing 31-19 at the half. The Mules have been one of the most improved teams in the state, a group of relatively young and inexperienced players who have morphed into a balanced team of lethal weapons. Trey Boatwright (17 points) and Liam Fitzgerald (15) continue to lead the way, but the Mules have key contributors in the backcourt (TaShaun Wright) and just enough depth to finish games strong. Coach Russ Fitzgerald and his staff found the key and unlocked one of the highlight teams of the year.
Beating Kapolei was notable, for sure, since the Hurricanes had been unbeaten in the West, beating Leilehua during the regular season. But the ‘Canes struggled in the second half and their key scorers, Zoar Nedd, Ja’Shon Carter and Isiah Higa, combined for just 24 points.
That makes the quarterfinal matchup between the unseeded Mules and third-seeded Lahainaluna more interesting. The Lunas have not been tested in weeks. They played on Oahu and traveled to the mainland for competition in preseason, but the Lunas played a total of two Top 10 teams during that early stretch. MIL play has been below par, and the Mules get two days of rest before taking on the Lunas.
Coach Jason Justus has transformed the Lunas into a finely-tuned machine, or battleship, or Star Wars space-beam weapon sitting in space at exact measurements 24/7. What they run is a testament to human efficiency, no wasted motion without losing the heart and soul. It a selfless team, and that comes almost entirely with pluses.
X-factor: The physical matchup is about even. The Mules may be young, but they have some height and plenty of length. Shutting down Fitzgerald is every team’s priority, but the 6-5 swingman is more than just a 3-point specialist this year. Lahainaluna has balance, height, work ethic comparable to any program. The system is as egalitarian and old school in the best ways possible. They love the inside-out approach, and that benefits workers like Carver Locke.
The teams played on Nov. 30, with Lahainaluna winning 45-38. The Lunas were already in mid-season form. Leilehua was very young and just starting to figure things out. It all spells the potential for an early exit for the MIL champions, but the most crucial factor is this: those early games off-island got the team conditioned to officiating away from the MIL.
That is huge. When Maui had its unbeaten run through preseason and MIL play years ago with Tevita Finau at center, coming to Oahu proved fatal. It took the Sabers a full half of game action before they adjusted to Oahu referees, and by then, it was too late. They were knocked out in the quarterfinals. The Lunas will be far more prepared than that Maui team was, at least with officiating.