Just like that, ‘Iolani’s dream season ended before it could climax, and Kamehameha’s season is a dream come true.
Kamehameha’s late-season surge is no surprise. For much of the early season, the Warriors played well enough to compete with front-runners Maryknoll and ‘Iolani. But something was missing. That something showed up under the brightest spotlight on Wednesday night with a state-tournament berth essentially on the line.
Mikiala Maio, the senior who had never been to the state tourney other than as an eight-grade team manager, dug down deep and scored 24 points for Kamehameha in a 64-61 overtime win over ‘Iolani.
“We’re much more focused now,” Maio said, recalling early-season, late-game difficulties in those rare Warrior losses. “We’ve been playing with heart, playing as a team, and when we’re all cooking, we’re hard to beat.”
‘Iolani suited up just seven players, but Kamehameha coach Joseph Cho knew better than to ease up.
“Those seven were pretty good. They all can dribble. They all can pass. They all can shoot the 3,” said Cho, who is in his second season at the helm.
The visiting Raiders unleashed a hellish fullcourt press on Kamehameha — a scheme that was far more common a year ago — while trailing 34-22 early in the second half. There simply was no time left to waste for the senior-heavy roster. The press wreaked havoc on Kamehameha in the backcourt.
“This is the first game we didn’t run our press breaker,” Cho noted. “It was excitement, adrenaline, ‘Iolani pushing the tempo. Give them all the credit in the world.”
The win comes off the heels of a stunning win over previously unbeaten, still-No. 1 Maryknoll.
“I still don’t know how we won tonight, and I still don’t how we beat Maryknoll,” Cho said.
He probably does know, but the gist is this: instead of giving away momentum in close games down the stretch, Kamehameha has learned to unfurl its best basketball in the clutch. When Kamehameha wasn’t throwing passes away — Taylor Wu was swarming everywhere with her teammates and finished with 18 points to lead ‘Iolani — it was Maio who pierced the heart of ‘Iolani’s pressure. She had the motor and the strength to finish hard at the basket, where the Raiders had no one to protect the rim.
“I was just reacting,” Maio said. “Coach (Dean) Agena (of Kalakaua Clinic) taught ballhandling to me. I was waiting, letting the game come to me. I slowed down.”
The story was nearly about the magnificent seven of ‘Iolani, playing strong without three key players: Skylar Nakata (illness), Kawai Kahalehoe (knee injury) and Kayla Malta (interview for a commercial pilot job). On the surface, it would seem that one more player in uniform would’ve made a crucial difference for ‘Iolani in a three-point overtime game. For outsiders who have heard the “One Team” mantra of ‘Iolani for decades, it seemed quite unusual that any player would not be present for a game this big, in favor of a job interview.
It wasn’t such a major choice, Raiders coach Dean Young said, in the bigger picture.
“We support all our kids, 100 percent,” he said. “We support her.”
The Warriors were at full strength and then some. Sophomore center Kalina Obrey was a force with 18 points, including crucial plays that tied the game to force overtime, and the go-ahead bucket in the extra period to give Kamehameha the lead for good.
“Things got a little shaky in the fourth quarter, but we pulled through. Our leaders stepped up,” she said.
Kiana Vierra (13 points) was deadly from the perimeter in the first half, and Jewel “Princy” Paaluhi-Caulk finished with a modest eight points, but it was her headiness that proved vital. With Kamehameha clinging to a 61-59 lead and less than 2 minutes left in OT, she passed up an open corner 3 despite the pleas of a raucous crowd at Kekuhaupio Gymnasium.
But just seconds later, she found a gap in the key, drove hard and laid in a perfect reverse layup to give the Warriors a four-point lead with 51 seconds remaining. ‘Iolani got no closer than two points the rest of the way.
“Our coaches helped us a lot,” Obrey said. “We played for our seniors. Ala’s a great player. She wanted it.”
The Raiders, meanwhile, can only wonder about what happened and what could’ve been during a season of great highlights. Among them was walloping Salesian (Calif.), a former national champion, during the ‘Iolani Classic. For a long stretch of the season, the Raiders were ranked at No. 2 or No. 3 statewide. Now, with just two state berths allotted to the ILH, ‘Iolani is on the outside looking in.
The physical nature of what turned out to be an elimination game — since Maryknoll routed Punahou were in the other ILH playoff semifinal — worked both ways. More often, though, it helped the taller, bigger team, Kamehameha.
“We missed a bunch of layups, and sometimes there were blocking fouls that they could’ve called,” Young said. “The credit goes to Kamehameha, especially one of their seniors, Mikiala. She didn’t want to lose.”
‘Iolani’s final league win-loss mark of 7-6 says little about the often flawless, beautiful transition game and drive-and-kick or drive-and-handoff style of basketball it mastered early in the season. With a roster that averaged just 5 feet, 5 inches per player, they were successful against bigger, taller teams here and on the mainland. Camy Aguinaldo (11 points) and Emily Nomura (12) played big in the loss. Point guard Tori Lynn Maeda used all the muscle she has to defend in the paint against Obrey.
“Adversity brings opportunity to step up in bigger roles and do something special. Taylor always provides an incredible burst of energy off the bench,” Young said. “We ran the tempo and got them to play at our tempo. We were down 10 at halftime, but that’s exactly the tempo we wanted. We knew Kamehameha would be tired.
“Our girls played their hearts out. I’m so proud of them.”