Huipu cages Tigers, faces St. Louis

St. Louis' Kevin Marks went to the hoop on Friday. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser
St. Louis’ Kevin Marks went to the hoop on Friday. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser

See Friday’s boys basketball tournament scores HERE.

This is one of those funky weekend/weeks of prep basketball. Because Christmas fell on a Thursday — and what working woman or man doesn’t appreciate getting the last two days of the week off at the end of a busy holiday season? — prep hoop tournaments are getting the split treatment.

From Kalaepohaku to Kapunahou to Manoa Valley, tournaments are extending over the weekend and into next week. Roundball from mid-morning to late night. Can you learn to love this? Or are you already hooked?

I saw just two games today: No. 5 McKinley against Huipu of Zhejiang, China, and No. 7 Saint Louis against Roosevelt. I had no idea what to expect of the first game. The Chinese teams that have frequented the ‘Iolani Classic over the years have been mostly underwhelming. Tall, fairly skilled but often outmuscled and outrun.

Not the case with Huipu. They play big — their two best posts are in the 6-6 to 6-8 range — and physical on the block, and their bigs also outrun opposing centers regularly. One of Huipu’s centers beat McKinley’s center downcourt for easy layups and/or free throws at least four or five times today. This a team that travelled roughly 3,000 miles to get here. Who’s got jet-lag legs? Not these guys.

Saint Louis coach Keith Spencer spent 2 1/2 hours watching them practice on Christmas Day.

“I’m thankful that my wife was so gracious,” he said.

What he saw, and what everyone saw today, is that Huipu is eons better than Fuxin, which played in last week’s ‘Iolani Classic. Fuxin had two tough players and a lot of raw role players, to put it nicely. Huipu is more like an all-star team, meaning they’ve got real ballers from 1 to 10 and maybe beyond. They look and play like guys who do this year-round, and you see it especially on the defensive end, where they love to apply pressure and sneak up for traps.

This is a really good team, possibly the best one in the Walter Wong Invitational. Good enough to make more than a few watchers at McCabe Gymnasium wonder why Huipu wasn’t the Chinese team playing at the ‘Iolani Classic last week.

The other really good team might be Saint Louis, and these two teams will meet on Saturday at 5 p.m. It should be quite interesting. Spencer’s Saint Louis squad goes more than 10 deep in the first half, and he reduces his rotation in the second half. That means more opportunities for guys like Jimmy Nunuha III, who is arguably the best defensive guard in the state. He made a big difference in the comeback win over Roosevelt this afternoon. So did Chris Sykes, the 6-3 freshman, and reserve forward Drew Kobayashi. They’re committed to winning as a team. They’re also committed to playing team defense, and that’s why Saint Louis is 12-2 in preseason.

The Walter Wong has a solid field overall. Leilehua, Damien and, if they shape up, McKinley all have a real good shot at making the state tourney. (Note: Damien is in Division II, but between Rocky Mori and Kapi‘ina King, that’s a solid twosome at any level.) That is, if the Tigers wake up. This is a team that knocked off a few Top 10 teams in the past two weeks and gave No. 1 Punahou a good battle before folding in the third quarter of last week’s Pete Smith Classic.

On Friday, it was again the third quarter that did the Tigers in as starters threw the ball all over the court, out of bounds, to the other team — it was brutal to watch. I don’t think it’s a regression to last year’s crazy ups and downs — man, I felt for that coaching staff so often — but who knows? Until the Tigers learn to value the ball, maybe they’ll repeat last year’s wild swings, losing so many close games down the stretch with careless ballhandling and silly shot selection. I thought they had learned that this season, but I’ve been wrong before. At some point, experienced returnees have to take ownership. Coaches can only do so much. That goes for every varsity team.

At the Punahou Invitational, it was hard to be compelled by most of the first-round matchups. Things should be much more interesting from the second round on, especially with four Top 10 squads. I thought, maybe, the Kalani-Kalaheo matchup would be good, but the Mustangs rolled to a 65-45 win. Once everybody’s healed up, I really don’t know if there’s a better team than Kalaheo. Punahou might have a little more depth in the frontcourt, and defensively, I really like the Buffanblu’s versatility, length and aggression with 6-4 Micah Ma‘a, 6-1 Kanawai Noa and 6-1 Kala‘i Santos.

But offensively, Kalaheo is a real problem for every team out there. Who’s going to pick up Kupaa Harrison when he’s the 5 (technically)? He’s going to stroke the 3, and any slow-as-molasses center who challenges him at the arc will get burn left and right and left and right. All night.

I have to note, yes the Punahou tourney field should be better, but it was the matchups that weren’t compelling. Now that we’re in the second round, we’ll see what some of these potentially good teams like Lahainaluna — are there more than three or four other teams as tall? — can do against better competition.

Small school, big heart: If you are a fan of Division II hoops, the St. Francis tourney is the place to be. It’s got more D-II entries than the Punahou Invitational. In fact, I kind of look at the Saints’ tourney as Exhibit A in the argument for Division III in state-championship sports. Not all sports, but certain ones. The ILH has been using D-III as a format for decades. Works quite well there. And though most fans, parents, players, coaches have rarely come across tiny schools across the state, they do exist, as in, yes, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it fall, it still did fall.

The Le Jardins and St. Josephs and Assets and Laupahoehoes of the islands really deserve a chance to play in a D-III, should they opt to go there. The only real issue, if and when discussion is initiated and completed, is whether it would be financially feasible. I think it would be as long as the D-III programs were committed to fundraising for those trips to states. The site would probably be on the Big Island or Maui, occasionally on Oahu. The key is self-sufficiency. If they can pull it off one day without needed financial support from the HHSAA, why wouldn’t everyone give it a shot?

Favorite score of the week: From Tuesday, an ILH D-II game between Maryknoll I-AA and host Hawaiian Mission, Spartans 79, HMA 67. (I can’t even remember what HMA’s nickname is.) Some fans can say there’s no defense in a high school game that has this much scoring. Might be true. But boy, there’s some offensive skill there, and Maryknoll had six players in double figures. SIX. They’re sharing the ball, running the floor, putting the ball in the basket — something that a lot of college coaches have forgotten to emphasize in the past 20 years as scoring in the NCAA continues to nosedive.

No, in D-II (and D-III) of the ILH, it’s sometimes more about just playing the game, playing hard and not being control freaks about wins and losses. I can’t say I blame any coach who is under immense pressure to win; that’s common ground for all D-I coaches in the state’s least-forgiving hoops league. But HMA, which went decades without fielding teams, has been pretty competitive on the hardwood, and that’s very cool. Maybe they keep getting better and find a way to sneak into the D-II state tourney. (Cue: Hoosiers soundtrack.)

And, yes, I know BIIF fans can look at a 79-67 score and yawn. There’s a lot of scoring in the BIIF every year. But it’s not a common pace on Oahu for a lot of teams. One big reason is there simply aren’t as many players who can shoot. More than half of most teams are guys who don’t shoot a basketball for months in the offseason, unless you count a few warmup shots before 2 hours of pickup ball as real training. No, for a lot of high-school boys, there’s no repetition, no drilling, no improvement with the most important skills. Coaches know this quite well, so instead of running and letting their teams try to score in the 70s and 80s, they realize they’re better off focusing on defense, keeping total possessions at a lower rate. That’s what you do when you have the talent level that shoots 30 percent from the field and less than 50 percent from the foul line every night. Got lemons, make lemonade. It’s a tough fight, but the coaches do their best with what’s in the kitchen.

Classic Rewind: There was very little time and no space for much of a report from the ‘Iolani Classic final, which was truly a Classic battle between Oak Hill (Va.) and Bishop O’Dowd (Calif.). The Warriors rallied for a 58-49 win and we got to see the resilient, long and potentially great Ivan Rabb on display for Bishop O’Dowd. He was fantastic and earned the most outstanding player honor.

“We definitely played well,” the 6-11 senior said. “Of course, we didn’t come here to lose.”

He will be a fine collegian, whether it’s at Kentucky (probable) or anywhere else. (Hawaii would be a great fit, right?) But even Rabb, at 6-11 with that crazy wingspan, was often stonewalled by Oak Hill’s enormous frontcourt. Every time I saw Warriors coach Steve Smith insert his 7-foot and 6-9 guys back into a game, it was almost surreal. High school basketball? Woh.

“Their strength didn’t bother me at all,” Rabb said. “But I got into foul trouble.”

“He’s awfully good,” Smith said of Rabb. “But we’ve got three or four big guys. “We were trying to attack him and find a way to get Bacon involved.”

That would be Dwayne Bacon, struggling along with a bad cold and an almost-headed fibula injury. He finished just 4-for-18 from the field, but his persistence paid off after an 0-for-7 start. A tough drive on Rabb for an and-1 three-point play was crucial.

“That was the biggest play of the game,” Smith said.

“He’s one of the top five players in the country,” Bacon said. “He’s a very good big. I kept going at him. It was a relief and a surprise. I didn’t think I’d get it.”

With all their weapons — Terrence Phillips was a superb PG who was named MVP of the tourney — the one guy who was also valuable was Andrew Fleming. The sharpshooter has a Kyle Korver-like effect, drawing coverage beyond the 3-point arc and opening more space for his teammates.

“I try to hit big shots. I’ve been playing more, trying to give us a big spark,” Fleming said, “and getting everybody more pumped up.”

Bishop O’Dowd coach Lou Richie kept perspective after the loss. His team was ranked No. 11 entering the Classic while Oak Hill was No. 3.

“We’ve got to get better. We can’t make those turnovers. Credit to them. They’re big and strong,” he said. “We go back to the lab, study film and have some family time for the next week.”

• Walter Wong Invitational
Friday’s scores
√ Damien 46, Kapolei 40
√ Leilehua 54, University 39
√ Huipu (Zhejiang, China) 71, No. 5 McKinley 50
√ No. 7 Saint Louis 52, Roosevelt 42
• All game times moved earlier due to planned power outage on campus.

Saturday’s games
12:30 p.m. University vs. Kapolei
2 p.m. Damien vs. Roosevelt
3:30 p.m. Leilehua vs. McKinley
5 p.m. Saint Louis vs. Huipu

Monday’s games
12:30 p.m. McKinley vs. Damien
2 p.m. Roosevelt vs. University
3:30 p.m. Leilehua vs. Huipu
5 p.m. Saint Louis vs. Kapolei

Tuesday’s games
12:30 p.m. McKinley vs. University
2 p.m. Kapolei vs. Roosevelt
3:30 p.m. Huipu vs. Damien
5 p.m. Saint Louis vs. Leilehua


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