It’s a remarkable feat, really, that the Punahou Buffanblu won seven of their eight nonconference games.
There’s a correlation, some say, between scoring margin and the long-term success of a team. Punahou, with its young roster, eked out some close victories by sheer grit. Three of their seven wins were by margins of 14 points or more. But in games decided by nine points or less, Punahou was 4-0, including a two-point win over Kalani and a one-point thriller over Kaiser. The average margin in those eight preseason games: a modest, but solid 9.4 points.
Winning close games might seem like a non-plus to longtime Buffanblu fans who were treated to four state titles — three with Shawna-Lei Kuehu as their leading scorer and rebounder — over an eight-year span under former coach Mike Taylor. But the current Buffanblu are climbing back up the mountain, where Maryknoll is at the peak with three ILH titles n a row.
Punahou’s near-perfect run through preseason wasn’t lucky. The other key ingredient: consistent composure from Kuehu, their first-year head coach. It’s not common to see an athlete who was so tremendous in any sport at any level become a coach and stay in coaching very long. Kuehu, a three-time player of the year, former UH Rainbow Wahine standout, brings a lot of experience from a career in the game.
That can take Punahou quite far. The Buffanblu were patient offensively, and with Tanisha Elbourne out with an injury, they were quite willing to be methodical and make No. 1 Maryknoll work defensively.
That blueprint did Punahou good in preseason. It will serve them well against the rest of the ILH, probably, but against a long, quick, rangy Maryknoll defense, it was a rough night. The Spartans racked up 10 steals en route to a 56-25 win at Hemmeter Fieldhouse.
It was more about Maryknoll’s length and savvy on defense than anything the Buffanblu did glaringly wrong. It was, as Kuehu said, “a lesson learned” for her team.
“Our mistakes are correctible. It’s the (defensive) pressure and we’ve got to make it harder at practice,” she said. “It’s part of the growing pains. No one likes to lose like that on their home court.”
To be sure, Punahou, ranked No. 6 in the Star-Advertiser Girls Basketball Top 10, won’t be the last ranked team to lose handily to Maryknoll, a team that finished second in the state the past two seasons. The Spartans are loaded with senior talent. There’s so much ability that their reserves are equally capable of starting.
Kodee Viena scored 13 points off the bench. Kamalu Kamakawiwo‘ole had 11, These two came off the bench for Chico Furtado. Starting point guard Rhianne Omori finished with 11 points. Moe Notoa and center Isabella Cravens had eight each. Cravens had 11 rebounds in her duel with Punahou’s 6-foot-4 freshman, Tama Fonoti, who had eight boards.
Notoa added seven boards and a block, showing a lot of energy and activity on both ends of the floor. Maryknoll shot 46 percent from the field (23-for-50), including 5-for-16 from the 3-point line (31 percent). The Spartans’ rugged man-to-man defense limited Punahou to 26-percent field-goal shooting (9-for-34).
Punahou’s youth and, perhaps, some jitters showed in their league debut. The Buffanblu shot 7-for-26 at the free throw line — 27 percent.
“I don’t know about this disparity where we shoot only four free throws and they have more than 20,” Furtado said. “If they hit some of those free throws, it might be a totally different game.”
But they didn’t and it wasn’t. It’s just more of what the ILH does every year, providing much of the best basketball (or volleyball or softball or soccer or baseball) in the state in a very compact, unforgiving ecosystem. It’s an evolve-or-die scenario week to week, and sometimes the teams that take a big loss or two early are the fastest to grow. Punahou seems to fit that mold, especially with Fonoti — who finished with a solid 11 points and eight rebounds — and guards like freshman Melody Lum (seven points).
The 14 turnovers? Most of those came on careless or rushed decisions, and the savvy Spartans were opportunistic. It is exactly the kind of experience that forces ILH teams into improve, to evolve.
“Maryknoll has a lot of D-I caliber players and they’re well-coached. He has some special players on that team,” Kuehu said. “If we’re going to get to where they are, we’ve got to do a lot of work.”
There is one stat line that is hard to ignore. Punahou grabbed nine offensive rebounds. Maryknoll barely won the battle of the boards, 24-22.
Lum, a blur-quick guard, had plenty of highlights in preseason. Against Maryknoll, she scored all seven of her points before halftime, but was 0-for-4 and scoreless after the break.
“We were just scared and nervous against the No. 1 team,” said Lum, who attacked the rim with success in the first half. “A lot of people say we’re young, but it’s no excuse.”
Fonoti went head to head with Cravens, a 6-1 senior.
“She pushed me, especially mentally. To be honest, it helps me to know what it’s like to play the best of the best,” Fonoti said.
The maturity of Punahou’s freshmen — there are four in all on the roster — is at a high level, and so is their work ethic. Time, as they say, is on their side.
All six ILH teams are ranked in the Top 10, and a seventh squad, Division II St. Francis, is also ranked. Punahou’s next game is on Saturday against No. 2 Kamehameha. Tip-off is 6:30 p.m. at Hemmeter Fieldhouse.