Final Four Countdown: A look at the semis

Cherilyn Molina will be key if Konawaena runs into Maryknoll. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser
Cherilyn Molina will be key if Konawaena runs into Maryknoll. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser

And then there were four.

The semifinal rounds of the Snapple/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships are upon us. Already. Forgive those of us of a certain age, but we remember when the girls tourney was played entirely at Stan Sheriff Center, four days, one division, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Glory days, indeed.

This is a new kind of glory, of course, with a Division II title at stake each season for the state’s smaller schools with championship-level aspirations. Here’s a look at tonight’s D-I and D-II matchups.

Division I
Maryknoll (27-2, 13-1 ILH) vs. Lahainaluna (20-2, 14-0 MIL)

5 p.m., Neal Blaisdell Arena
The Spartans are humming. A 58-23 rout of OIA runner-up Kaimuki, along with Kamehameha’s ouster of OIA champion Farrington makes it a sweep by the ILH’s two entries over their counterparts among the Oahu public schools.

No Spartan played more than 22 minutes and everyone played. Center Isabella Cravens had 13 points and 10 rebounds in just 17 minutes of action. They should be well-rested for tonight’s battle.

Maryknoll is more than hungry with this group of juniors, arguably one of the greatest recruiting classes in state history. When I say recruit, it’s not like college recruiting. It’s simply the process of how so many talented, driven basketball players found Coach Chico Furtado, his staff, the new gym and Maryknoll’s academics and culture so appealing. Without all those elements, the Spartans hadn’t won a state title in decades.

They finished third in 2015 as freshman, second in ’16 as sophomores, watching a close game turn into a 10-point win by Konawaena. The Spartans are going to defend a quick, fast Lunas squad with what has evolved into the best defensive unit from the ILH in recent memory.

Though they can run — Furtado likens his speedy athletes as being let out of the corral from time to time — the Spartans use defense as their bedrock. With 6-foot-2 Cravens protecting the rim, long, lanky defenders Chayse Milne and Kamalu Kamakawiwo‘ole have more freedom whether Maryknoll is in its typical man-to-man defense or the occasional 2-3 matchup zone.

After those three ace defenders — I wouldn’t be surprised if all three were among the Top 10 or even Top 5 in All-Defense voting after the season — it’s a mix-and-match situation. Rhianne Omori is almost peerless as a point guard on the offensive end, a ball hawk on defense. Furtado’s bench is solid, smart, tough and not as long or quick as the starting five. He’s careful about how they employ their defenses when the second group is in, and it works out to maximum effect thanks to their grit and Furtado’s acumen.

Lahainaluna got past Mililani 54-46 in Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup at Moanalua. Though the Lady Lunas are seeded third, it’s not quite the powerhouse they’ve sent to Honolulu in recent years. The Lunas’ all-out fullcourt pressure and blazing speed on the fastbreak remain their staples under longtime coach Todd Rickard.

The Lunas forced Mililani into 24 turnovers, getting five steals from Braenna Estabillo. Elisapeta Hafoka (17 points, five boards) and Susitina Namoa (15, five) combined to shoot 11-for-16 against a relatively tall and agile Mililani defense. As a team, they were outrebounded 31-20 by the Trojans, something almost unheard of by recent Lahainaluna teams.

Pupule says: The Lunas struggled during their Oahu trip in preseason, suiting up just five players. However, they played a handful of Top 10 teams closely, and two months of practice and preparation is a lifetime for Rickard’s teams. Maryknoll skill and size just about everywhere, but faster teams like ‘Iolani have given the Spartans some trouble. Maryknoll went to its zone in the first meeting against ‘Iolani. For the first time in awhile, the Spartans will tangle with a speedy crew that presses from start to finish. In fact, no other team does it like Lahainaluna. It could be Layup City for Milne, Kamakawiwo‘ole and Omori. The contrast of styles will be fascinating to view.

Konawaena (25-3, 12-0 BIIF) vs. Kamehameha (20-5, 9-5 ILH), 7 p.m.
Neal Blaisdell Arena
Kamehameha and Farrington provided one of the best quarterfinal battles in tourney history, going back and forth before the Warriors eked out a 52-47 win on Thursday at McKinley. It really came down to game experience and basketball IQ. While Farrington threw away passes and opted to shoot a 2 instead of a corner 3 in the final seconds — inexperience — Kamehameha never got flustered. Even after Farrington rode the coattails of senior Moli Heimuli to take the lead, the Warriors took their open shots, including several from the 3-point arc.

There was no panic, no red light at the arc. That looseness and focus by Coach Joseph Cho allowed his shooters to remain confident and, sure enough, Kiana Vierra drilled a money 3 from the left wing to gave her team a 46-43 lead down the stretch.

“That was the game. I know she or Princy (Paaluhi-Caulk) would hit one sooner or later,” Cho said. “It’s fine. I was never in doubt. We’ve played so many tight games in the ILH.”

And there lies the rub. Kamehameha has year-round athletes, some who focus only on basketball, and the constant gauntlet action of the ILH means they rarely have a blowout game. In the OIA East, Farrington got hot and stayed hot, and not many teams could push them to the brink. When the lights got hot, the team with the cooler disposition and far more game experience prevailed.

As for tonight’s matchup, Konawaena clearly has an edge in terms of freshness. Though their starters got a lot of minutes — Mikayla Tablit 27, Cherilyn Molina 26, Celena Jane Molina 30 — it was a 24-point lead at the half.

The key matchups are going to be inside. While guards Tablit (three steals) and Cherilyn Molina (one) are arguably the best defensive backcourt in the state, Celena Jane Molina is the x-factor. At nearly 6 feet tall, she has long octopus arms that cause all kinds of problems for sloppy post players. She had EIGHT steals on Wednesday, always in position to snag a bad pass, always with quick hands to poke the ball away from a zombie opponent.

If she covers Kamehameha’s terrific sophomore post, Kalina Obrey, she will be quicker and use her length and leverage to cause some difficulty. However, that would give Mikiala Maio free reign on the high post. She was clutch and a destroyer of bigs on Wednesday, scoring 30 points against a relatively tough Farrington frontcourt. Maio is 5-foot-8, normally played the point or wing in years past, but has become a matchup nightmare in the post, hitting layups and pull-up jumpers with so much control and explosion. She is basically unstoppable. If she goes off, Molina may have to switch, which means Obrey would face a young, gifted Konawaena defender in Caiyle Kaupu. That would be an intriguing.

On the other side of the floor, Molina showed a lot of aggressiveness in the rout of KS-Maui, but still has her passing chops and ballhandling skills. Her ability to attack and create is a major factor for a mostly young Wildcats team, and regardless of their two titles in the past two years, having that steady force in Molina is a valuable weapon.

Maio might match up on Celena Molina, but the risk of foul trouble may be too high. That means the assignment could go to Vierra, a long, tough defender, or even Obrey, who normal defends in the low post area. The chess games won’t end, and Cho will possibly revert to a matchup zone and take his chances with Konawaena’s so-so long-range shooting. The Wildcats shot 5-for-15 against KS-Maui from deep.

Pupule says: Beyond the older Molina (Celena), none of the Wildcats have been tested by a versatile scorer like Maio in a long time. Someone will have to step up, though Coach Bobbie Awa was content to stay in a 2-3 zone for the entire second half against KS-Maui. Kamehameha did enough damage from deep (5-for-13, 39 percent) against Farrington to turn the game from the arc.

Division II
Kamehameha-Hawaii (15-6, 7-3 BIIF) vs. St. Francis (15-2, 10-1 ILH D-II)

5 p.m., Kalani High School/Earl C. Holmer Gymnasium
I haven’t seen KS-Hawaii yet, but they ousted a good Moanalua team 44-33 in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. Said Aganus led the Warriors with 13 points and eight rebounds and it is still a bit stunning to see a KS-Hawaii roster without a Poe sister in it after all these years.

Note: KS-Hawaii got the win, but Moanalua did the damage to itself, making just 14 of its 37 free-throw attempts.

The Saints are coming off wins over Waipahu (39-35) and third-seeded Seabury Hall (52-27). The Waipahu game could’ve gone either way. The Saints were often in trouble against Waipahu’s fullcourt press, but center Olivia Vaeatangitau saved the day with a key offensive rebound and putback down the stretch, finishing with 14 points and 13 boards. She also had 17 points and 18 rebounds in the win over Seabury Hall.

Pupule says: KS-Hawaii, the BIIF champion, will be much fresher than St. Francis, which will be playing its third game in as many days. I like the length and explosiveness of Misioni Ribeiro, but the entire team will need to help point guard Kaimi Kalei, who has been the primary ballhandler through this marathon of games. The Saints had 21 turnovers against Seabury Hall, but dominated the glass 59-24.

Mid-Pacific (15-3, 11-0 ILH D-II) vs. Kalani (15-8, 9-3 OIA)
7 p.m., Kalani High School/Earl C. Holmer Gymnasium
The Owls are the top seed, but it remains to be seen how they’ll handle Kalani’s slithery and agile bigs in the paint. MPI’s 82-30 win over Damien was a blessing in disguise, allowing Coach Sherice Ajifu to rest her starters. No starter played more than 19 minutes with the exception of Tylee-Kanani Wong (26). Billie Kovaloff had 23 points and six steals in just 19 minutes.

Kalani has 3-point shooters across the arc, but the Owls probably already scouted Kirstin Kouchi before she torched Kauai with six 3-pointers and 26 points in the Falcons’ 68-48 win on Wednesday.

Pupule says: Kalani is the ultimate sleeper, a team that isn’t very big, but has just enough size, and just enough shooting and ballhandling to give MPI its toughest challenge of the season. The Owls haven’t lost since preseason. How will they react to a tight game?


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