By Paul Honda
They were a sea of red, just Lahainaluna loyalists clamoring for new heights, night after night.
The hunger of the West Maui community for a noble champion was immense. The Lady Lunas of Lahainaluna obliged on Friday night. A breathtaking 47-45 come-from-behind win over defending champion Konawaena put Lahainaluna in the record books.
The first-ever girls basketball state crown for Lahainaluna — and the Division I programs of the Maui Interscholastic League — was a long time in the making, a mission derailed over and over by perennial powerhouses Punahou and Konawaena over the years. The post-game celebration was magical for the 300 or so red-clad Luna fans who gave the team all the energy it needed when the chips were down. Even the Wildcats praised their foes, through tears of disappointment.
That’s where the ties between the two neighbor-island program become more obvious to see. Lahainaluna’s stud players, Milika Taufa and Maiki Viela, played with Konawaena players last summer in tournaments in Oregon. It was a gracious offer by the Wildcats and their age-group Stingrays basketball club.
When the varsity season arrived, Konawaena opened at No. 1 in the Star-Bulletin Girls Basketball Preseason Poll and remained there for months, a dynasty in the making. Would they win a third state title in four years?
The Lunas lost to the ‘Cats at the Konawaena Winter Classic. A week later, they hosted Konawaena at the Lahainaluna Holiday Classic. The entire Konawaena squad stayed at the home of Viela’s grandfather.
“They took really good care of us,” said Donald Awa, husband of coach Bobbie.
In the celebration months later, Viela went over to the subdued gathering of Wildcats and Wildcat fans. There were hugs aplenty. She hugged Konawaena’s Lia Galdeira, the 2009 Star-Bulletin player of the year. The pain of losing and the joy of a friend’s dream come true are a heavy mix of emotions. Galdeira couldn’t let go.
“That’s my sister right there,” she said.
Konawaena fans — many of them family members who made the long voyage to Honolulu — gave Viela and her teammates praise and hugs, as well. But the tears still fell. This one hurt for the Wildcats, as it should. After all, with a young team last year, they knocked off Punahou to win the state championship. With freshmen stars in Galdeira and Awa, it seemed very possible that they might win four state titles in a row, a feat that has been done just once — by Kamehameha (1990-93) under Al Apo. These ‘Cats were that good.
They still are, and in fact, they’re better. Up until the final 10 minutes on Friday night, Konawaena had played a perfect season against Hawaii teams. Go back more and the win streak of 45 began in December of 2008. So, how were the Wildcats to know that some of the same elements that built such a prodigious string of success would derail them.
It wasn’t obvious to the Wildcats, but for neutral observers, there were these key points.
• As Konawaena built the lead to 11, fewer and fewer players crashed the offensive boards. It got almost too easy. They got a little soft. It happens when the engine is humming.
• Lahainaluna’s 17-3 run was pure repetition. Aside from some great transition buckets from her teammates, it was Taufa who continued to dominate the low post against 1-on-1 coverage. Konawaena stayed in a man-to-man defense instead of clogging the paint with a zone. Taufa simply feasted.
• During that run, the Wildcats settled for mid-range shots, including a few from cold subs off the bench. There were times when Awa and Galdeira didn’t touch the ball before it went up, and again, there were no offensive rebounders.
• The Lunas ran off some time down the stretch — not a lot, but enough to make a bigger difference. Again, this is where Konawaena’s strength became an Achilles’ heel. After averaging 20 steals per game in their first two contests at the tourney, the ‘Cats came close to stealing the ball away. Instead, they had to foul.
• Even with all that, they had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final seconds. Anuhea Wall, playing the game of her life (21 points, 12 boards), tipped away a lob from Viela and gave Konawaena a chance to take the lead.
Then, the inexplicable happened. A pass by reliable Dawnyelle Awa whizzed under the backboard and out of bounds. A golden opportunity gone.
• With a 46-45 lead, the Lunas protected the ball and Viela hit one of her two foul shots with 8.2 seconds left. Then came another pivotal moment.
Galdeira drove hard — one of the few times all night she challenged the Lunas — and drew contact outside the low post. She immediately hit a line-drive jumper off the contact, but what seemed to be a three-point opportunity was called off as a blocking foul before the shot.
The ensuing inbounds pass in traffic down low to Galdeira was trouble all the way, deflected and defended as Konawaena never got a final shot off.
• Galdeira, who missed most of the season with a left shoulder injury, wasn’t 100-percent healthy after returning for the playoffs and state tourney. She was completely off the court during her rehab.
With three state titles in the past six years, Konawaena is still one of the premier programs in the state. With a No. 1 ranking all season long, coaches and media felt they were just the best.
Are the Wildcats a dynasty? It depends on how you define “dynasty.” A win last night would’ve fit that definition, it’s safe to say, of most basketball watchers.
Instead, the Wildcats are wondering how it got away.
“We didn’t play our game,” Coach Awa said. “Our defense wasn’t intense. It was safe. It was only at the end when we said, ‘You guys gotta trap!’ Our girls worried more about helping down low (against Taufa), but if you pressure the ball, it’s hard to get the ball in.”
Transition points, a staple of Konawaena’s winning formula, were almost nil in the second half.
“They took off their fullcourt press. That was smart on their part,” Awa said of the Lunas. “Then we didn’t finish our shots.”
Can a team that wins 45 games in a row (versus local competition) change its ways on the fly?
“We worked on some zone at practice. We talked about doing it at shootaround,” Awa said. “But we’ve only been practicing it one or two days.”
They opted to stay in the man. That fed Taufa’s hunger.
“She’s a senior and she wanted it,” Awa said. “She played a great game.”
The bad news for Konawaena is that for the first time in a long time, another team wanted the win more than it did. Taufa was gassed by the third quarter, but willed herself to victory, sprinting, blocking shots, attacking the glass with a fervor reserved for champions only. Even Lahainaluna’s fans wanted it more, dominating the acoustically-engineered walls of the Blaisdell while Konawaena fans were uncharacteristically quiet through some of the game’s most crucial moments.
While Taufa showed with her body language that she wanted the ball and wanted to attack — and win — Konawaena’s best players were more mostly passive, deferring to teammates instead of beating defenders to the rim.
Taufa, the senior, earned her crown. Konawaena, with a starting five of underclassmen, showed their youth and inexperience for the first time in eons.
“Maybe it’ll kick them in the (okole) and make them more hungry, get them in the weight room and the gym more. The serious players will do that,” Coach Awa said.
The loss might make a better coach of Awa, if that’s possible after three state championships. She thought back to the third quarter, when her team had a 34-23 lead.
“I should’ve said, ‘Good shots are layups.’ Milika, how many times she was jumping (on defense), then we settle for outside shots,” Awa said.
Contrary to her team’s style, she even had second thoughts about being in a regular offense in the third quarter, up 11.
“I should’ve brought it out. Make them chase us,” she said.
Rickard was surprised that the Wildcats kept attacking.
“I thought they’d pull the ball out. I think she didn’t want them to not play. That team has a lot of confidence,” he said.
Spreading the court would’ve made things uncomfortable defensively for Taufa, who never ventured higher than the middle of the paint when Anuhea Wall went to the high post.
So many second thoughts. Was it a championship squandered away? Probably not. From every angle, it was simply a championship Lahainaluna was hungrier for.
Awa thought about December, when the team stayed with the hospitable Lunas at Viela’s grandfather’s house.
“Friendships were made,” she said. “It might be hard to play the way you can against your friends.”
Now that the Wildcats have been served a bitter pill to swallow, the loss may serve them well. It might just be the fuel that rockets them back to the top as their underclassmen mature.
Sometime in the near future, this notion may sink in: Leadership isn’t just about being unselfish; it means taking command before it’s too late.
Father Time has that certain effect on the brokenhearted and defeated. Without Taufa, the Lady Lunas will miss the best low-post scorer in the state next season. Punahou will return with the core of its lineup. Konawaena’s starting five, all currently underclassmen, may have a sense of urgency.
“We’re gonna come back,” Galdeira promised, still wiping tears from her eyes long after the bitter defeat. “Next year. We’re gonna work hard.”