Clutch Wildcats embrace underdog role

Konawaena Wildcats supporters waved signs after advancing to the final round of the HHSAA Division I Girls Basketball State Championship with a 50-45 over the Lahainaluna Lunas on Friday evening. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser

They do a lot of good things together.

The Konawaena Wildcats also wear pink Crocs everywhere. That’s the influence of longtime assistant coach and former state champion Jessica Hanato, who has been wearing green Crocs since the current Wildcats were still in diapers.

“It’s a team thing. We all have it. We started a trend and everybody started wearing it at school,” senior guard Cherilyn Molina said.

These are clearly not your sister’s Wildcats, not that it would be fair to compare this year’s squad to the eight state championship teams during Bobbie Awa’s tenure. This time, the ‘Cats are the underdogs, seeded second behind ILH champion Maryknoll.

“We’re all ready. We’re prepared for all of this,” said Molina, the reigning Star-Advertiser all-state player of the year.

Konawaena is now 25-2 overall (including nonconference games) following a 50-45 win over third-seeded Lahainaluna on Friday night at Blaisdell Center in the semifinals of the Snapple/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships.

What’s fair, though, is the way just about every coach and spectator expects Awa and her staff to raise their team’s level of play. In November, Konawaena lost to Lahainaluna 44-42, and the Lady Lunas were missing two vital pieces: Moe Notoa and Keiko Aotaki.

When the teams met on Friday night in the semifinal round of the Snapple/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships, Notoa and Aotaki left their imprints. Notoa had 14 points and Aotaki added seven. Braeanna Estabillo-Donato tallied 15 points, and yet, Konawaena prevailed.

What Konawaena did that most teams couldn’t against Lahainaluna was basic: keep the hustling Notoa off the boards. The junior finished with three rebounds, and Konawaena dominated the glass for a second night in a row.

“Our intensity level was more up this time, not necessarily because we lost the first time. Lahainaluna is a great team,” senior guard Mikayla Tablit said.

Molina, who had 10 rebounds in a quarterfinal win over Moanalua, had eight more against Lahainaluna. Four of those were on the offensive board. Her backcourt mate, Tablit, had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, and six of her caroms were on offense.

That kind of blue-collar work supplemented a solid performance by sophomore post Caiyle Kaupu, who had 12 points, shooting 4-for-6 from the field and 4-for-5 from the foul line. She also had 10 rebounds, and seven of those were on the offensive glass.

After corralling 16 offensive rebounds against Moanalua, the Wildcats pulled down a whopping 18 offensive caroms against the Lunas. That’s basically 34 new opportunities in two games for a team that has one of the smallest rosters in the tourney.

It wasn’t that simple, though. A 32-21 lead evaporated in the fourth quarter as Lahainaluna tied the game twice, at 37 and 44. In the final 2 minutes, it came down to free throws. Konawaena was 4-for-6, including two swishes by Tablit to open the lead to 49-45 with 46.5 seconds left.

The Lunas faltered, shooting 1-for-5 down the stretch at the line.

“We told our leaders, our players who have been here four years, to take care of the ball,” co-head coach Dawnyelle Awa said. “We needed to know whose hands the ball needed to be in.”

As a team, the Wildcats shot 73 percent at the charity stripe (11-for-15). Tablit said it all comes from practice.

“Our (free-throw) shooting throughout the season wasn’t that good. I’m pretty sure it was less 50 percent, so Auntie Bobbie made us shoot free throws. Everybody had to shoot (and make) 10 in a row. In order to be on our level, you have to step up,” Tablit said. “When it comes down to the end, free throws are crucial.”

A key moment in the game came during the third quarter. Kaupu committed three unforced turnovers, prompting a substitution. When she returned for the fourth quarter, she was back to business with five big rebounds — three on the offensive end — and two points.

“Caiyle was kind of losing her head,” Bobbie Awa said of her sophomore. “We just told her to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and get out there and play with your team.”

Now it’s time for the showdown between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams, Maryknoll and Konawaena.

“We have to play smart and play as a team,” Tablit said. “We were never the underdog, but this year, we have a lot to prove.”


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