Girls hoops All-Defense, Most Improved

Konawaena's Celena Jane Molina, left, will join her sister at Washington State next season. Photo by Krystle Marcellus / Star-Advertiser (Feb. 14, 2014)
Konawaena’s Celena Jane Molina, left, will join her sister at Washington State next season. Photo by Krystle Marcellus / Star-Advertiser (Feb. 14, 2014)

There’s a list a certain pupule writer is composing that, in terms of importance, breaks apart like this — if was a pie chart: 60 percent, All-Defensive Team; 39 percent, most improved player; and 1 percent, roughly 200 girls basketball players rated in my latest sumo-rankings style groupings.

So the order of priority is simple enough. By vote via coaches and media, here’s the 2017 All-Defensive team in girls basketball, in ranked order:

1. Celena Jane Molina, Konawaena
2. Cherilyn Molina, Konawaena
3. (tie) Kamalu Kamakawiwo‘ole, Maryknoll
3. (tie) Mikayla Tablit, Konawaena
5. Isabella Cravens, Maryknoll
6. Kiana Vierra, Kamehameha
7. Chayse Milne, Maryknoll
8. Lisa Hafoka, Lahainaluna
9. (tie) Rachael Balagso, Lahainaluna
9. (tie) Saydee Aganus, Kamehameha-Hawaii

I’ll say this about these defensive selections: it is almost certainly without doubt that there are 20-25 elite-level defenders statewide. Sure, it may not seem like we have that many great defensive players, but through sheer volume, that’s how it often works out. So if there’s a very good defender in your league who isn’t among the 10 mentioned above, it’s not a deliberate omission. I’d love to see more voters participate, both among media and coaches. Many opt to abstain from voting.

Another response from this pupule: though the second five is stellar — would anyone really get more than a couple of open looks from the wing with Vierra and Milne guarding them? — this first five is really, really interesting. I may harp about the lack of quality depth in this era compared to 10-15 years ago, but defensively, I don’t have any questions about this quartet.

Celena Jane Molina
I look at the Konawaena roster and the vital numbers on this senior, and it seems impossible that she’s still 5-foot-8. I’ve stood next to her more than a few times, and I’d be shocked if she isn’t really 5-9. Then there’s the wingspan. Her length makes it tough on posts and wings looking for a quick release because her reaction time is very quick. But, beyond the length and agility, she is stronger than she looks. When she and former teammate Ihi Victor went up against Punahou’s powerful posts, Vae Malufau and Tyra Moe, in the 2016 state tourney, their lower-body strength and leverage were stunning. They were clearly outsized, but their actual balance and defensive effectiveness is something rarely seen.

With Konawaena constantly in man defense, rarely switching, it wouldn’t have mattered a lot. In the few possessions when they did switch, Molina was more than capable of covering much smaller guards on the 3-point arc. Also, though most voters may not consider it, transition offense after a rebound does matter in the full scope, and Molina’s speed from point A to point B has always been superior. But my point is this: she is a condor on the perimeter and a wall in the post. A wall made maybe not of steel, but more like bamboo — flexible and pliant, impossible to break by human hands.

Cherilyn Molina, Tablit
It was sometime in the 2015-16 season when I really started to understand how impossible Cherilyn Molina was making things for opposing point guards. After five, 10, 15 possessions, her quick feet and impeccable footwork, taking away angles and basically suffocating the other team’s floor director, she could go scoreless and still control more than 50 percent of a game.

We don’t have defensive efficiency statistics available at this point for high school girls basketball, but my guesstimate is that an average-to-slightly above average defender filling in for Cherilyn Molina would present a negative difference of about 10 to 15 points per game. There have been games when she deflects double-digit passes or dribbles, and roughly half of those end up in Konawaena’s hands. The other half make a difference, creating pressure, stress, doubt in the opponent. But there’s also this: her endurance, able to play from start to finish if necessary, simply takes a toll on any ballhandler. Her ability to score, to run an offense, pass, even crash the offensive boards — that’s what makes her much more visible to voters. However, as a defensive force, it’s her ability to crowd a point guard’s normal comfort zone, creeping into that personal space (18 inches) that changes everything for a normal team’s offensive flow, and the spots on the court that it likes to run its offense.

Pair Molina with Tablit, and Konawaena has enjoyed the best defensive backcourt in the state, arguably, for the past two seasons.

Kamakawiwo‘ole, Milne
I’m grouping these two together because in just about every game I covered involving the Lady Spartans, they were hugely effective at multiple things defensively. After while it was like watching a pair of tall cornerbacks taking away a ton of opportunities for opposing teams.

With Kamakawiwo‘ole, we really haven’t seen exactly how good the 5-10 sophomore can and will be defensively. There were splashes of fullcourt pressure with this Spartan’s wingspan creating major headaches for opposing players and coaches. Most of the time, Maryknoll operated out of man defense, where Kamakawiwo‘ole was outstanding at blanketing her man, challenging any less-than perfect pass in the lane, all while remaining in good position to recover most of the time.

Milne is a bit more of a gambler, which is something the Spartans could survive thanks to the presence and skill of Cravens (more on her later). Milne’s long arms and explosiveness are really difficult to ignore. Even on the rare occasion when Coach Chico Furtado had his team play a 2-3 matchup zone, Milne was all over the wing, using her persistence and tenaciousness so well on her side (with Kamakawiwo‘ole on the other side). It was enough to imagine that yes, Maryknoll could do this full-time, going Syracuse on the rest of the ILH and state, denying open looks from 3 out a 2-3 (woh!) simply because of Milne and Kamakawiwo‘ole. Milne is a junior, which means she will be back with Kamakawiwo‘ole (and Cravens) to form the finest front court in the state next season. Probably.

There were times when the 6-1 junior was a block party unto herself. Anyone driving into the paint without the sense to have a Plan B and Plan C was promptly rejected again and again. Cravens isn’t quite there yet, however, as a completely elite defender. Foul trouble mounted later in the season when her team needed her on the floor. Oh, the Spartans could get by thanks to a strong reserve crew, as well as Milne and Kamakawiwo‘ole. But Cravens will continue to get wiser and pick her spots more carefully. Most of the time, bigs mature later than guards, and she’s already got athleticism and aggressiveness.

Fairly similar to Maryknoll’s long wing stoppers, Vierra could easily be pegged as a post player, racking up 8-10 rebounds and 2-4 blocks per game. But her agility and footwork, and the added bonus of her length, make her a prime defender from the arc. Like many of the players on this list, she is an underclassman.

At 5-9, the senior was tough in the paint, versatile defensively and clever enough to battle bigger foes effectively. She was the lone senior on a talented, tough team.

Very quick defensively and similar in a lot of was on that side of the court to Tablit and Cherilyn Molina. Another of the underclassmen on this All-Defensive Team.

The 5-7 junior was the only Division II player among the Top 10 here.

1. Kaelyn Espinda, Kaimuki
2. Braeanne Estabillo, Lahainaluna
3. Molimau Heimuli, Farrington

Espinda didn’t just improve since last year, but over the course of the Bulldogs’ season, it became very apparent that she not only could shoot the open 3, but she was a true point guard. That helped immensely because Coach Mona Fa‘asoa needed her versatile senior, Victoria Kintz, to play center and forward on defense, and with Kintz responsible for rebounding and attacking the rim, Espinda’s ability to protect the ball and start the offense were huge assets. By season’s end, Espinda was able to finish games by attacking the rim at the right time, controlling the ball and the clock. That’s a lot of responsibility for a senior, let alone a sophomore.

Estabillo came on strong this season. She is one of the more recent in a line of strong players developed in the Menehune program at Lahaina. Her shooting skills are the real deal. She had 11 points in 13 minutes before an injury forced her out of the state semifinal game against Maryknoll.

Heimuli put it together as a senior. She indicated that conditioning made all the difference, and once she was in top shape, she became a point forward of sorts, helping against the press, running the fastbreak, running the floor for layups and putbacks, and her range was reliable to 15, 17 feet. She can bang the 3, too, but her priority was to stay active at the rim, and that was a major reason why the Lady Governors won the OIA D-I title.

Espinda and Estabillo are juniors. Heimuli is a senior who will play at the next level via the junior college route. She has all the skills and potential to play at the college D-I level.


  1. Tafena Costa February 27, 2017 11:42 am

    I’m glad somebody is giving credit to the defensive players of the state. Interested to see the boys’ selections.

  2. kimo February 27, 2017 3:32 pm

    Balino is one of the best players in the state, not only does she have the physical attributes, but also the work ethic, and skill set. You need to see her game in person to really understand. As for leaving her off the list and having some very questionable ones…..take for example the states D-2 championship game. Didn’t Mid Pacific Owls go off on Kam Keaau? Did not really see any defense in that game, a few of the players were in double figures for the Owls including the one that was covered by one of your picks. Your Wild Cat picks were correct and we saw that in the D-1 championship game. Spartans with their 808 pipeline and talent seem to be underachieving?? Stingray basketball stresses playing on both ends of the court, especially defense. We will continue to see athletes that are taught the fundamentals of defense at Stingray clinics thrive at school they attend, just as Balino will next season.

  3. The Watcher February 27, 2017 7:25 pm

    I have to agree with Kimo. This list is bad. There are two kids on this list who I have coached. Neither of them are known for defense. I had to put them on the opponents weakest scorer on many occasions. I am not going to name them since I am not on here to insult anyone personally. But there are many questionable choices here. It kind of makes you wonder if the people voting even watch the games.

  4. Player15 February 28, 2017 12:02 pm

    Nanakuli girls has one defender hands down better then most of those girls mentioned…..#15 watches and shuts down the opponent’s top scorer…..just saying…..oia west

  5. Education First February 28, 2017 2:06 pm

    Many people who vote do not see enough basketball to make an accurate assessment. Also, many spectators who never coached really do not know what to look for that makes up a good defender. There are so many factors.

  6. Kayden February 28, 2017 11:03 pm

    I don’t agree with the comment regarding Spartans and their 808 pipeline. The girls are not underachieving. The 808 girls aren’t given the green light to play to their strengths. Coach holds them back and yells at them for shooting. Only puts them in to defend when they are down and need saving. I think the 808 field are the top defenders on that team

  7. 100% KONA March 1, 2017 3:13 pm

    What one thinks is one thing, but what really matters is what happens on the court/game.
    FACT: 3 players on list from Konawaena and spartans, Three straight titles for Konawaena Wildcats, Konawaena freshman nails 2 treys in primetime over spartans defenders.
    Many youth in Kona and Kohala, Hamakua, and Hilo for that matter don’t get the accolades because of the limited media exposure and Honolulu centric mentality. For those of you that attended tournaments on Hawai’i Island you know the talent that resides here.

    Threepeat Konawaena Wildcats!

  8. Education First March 2, 2017 8:23 am

    Of course it will be Honolulu Centric. The newspaper is located in Honolulu. It’s quite hard with limited resources to get coverage on the neighbor island. The newspaper is doing the best job they can given the financial landscape. And we are talking about girls basketball right? We are not talking about football. What’s next? Are you going to complain that hopscotch or chinese checkers isn’t getting coverage on Maui?

  9. 100% KONA March 11, 2017 10:32 am

    Just to educated ed 1st …..the paper is located on the island of O’ahu and printed in Kalaeloa.

  10. Ballout March 11, 2017 12:18 pm

    Lets get our facts straight.

    There is no pipeline of 808 to Maryknoll. None of the girls mentioned in the article even play for 808. Milne is Kalakaua, Vierra is or was Eastsidaz till this season, Kamakawiwioole was Islanders till this past summer now she is with Stingrays, Cravens is Islanders. KIMO, if I am not mistaken the Balino girl from Campbell is or was with Islanders until recently as well?

  11. Kimo March 18, 2017 2:26 pm

    Balino, who will be unstoppable again next year…..
    was born and raised in Kamuela!
    Na Alkane and Stingray club.

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