The game was over and the Lady Lunas of Lahainaluna were mingling with each other and family members who made the flight over to Oahu.
Lahainaluna advanced to the semifinal round of the Heide & Cook/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships with a 49-36 win over Punahou. But some time during the post-game decompression stage, Chaland Pahukoa had a moment.
The talented junior guard had just scored 12 points, including two huge 3-pointers in the third quarter to help the Lunas pull away from the Buffanblu. But she approached assistant coach Todd Rickard, tears flowing. She gave the longtime Lunas coach a strong hug, and his tears began to fall, as well.
No one really knows how much these student-athletes sacrificed during the pandemic, losing an entire winter season in the island while the rest of the nation played basketball and other sports. Rickard and other coaches, including head coach Iolani Kaniho, know exactly what their hoopsters did for months on end, praying and hoping for a chance to prove their mettle on a big stage again.
The Lady Lunas are a melting pot this season. Some teammates on the Town & Country club team are together on a high school roster for the first time. Lahainaluna has a strong point guard who hits threes from the logo. Ledjan Pahukoa is two years older now, a former King Kekaulike guard who made the Star-Advertiser All-State Fab 15 as a freshman. That season, Na Alii gave Konawaena a big scare before losing, 40-37. Pahukoa scored 14 points in Thursday’s win over Punahou.
Chaland Pahukoa and Taylor Eldredge (12 points) add versatility and smart decision-making against pressure defenses. Kiera Kaniho, the senior veteran, and sophomore Travina Harris give the Lunas a powerful, tall and strong duo in the paint. Harris, at 6 feet tall, had seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Both posts are mobile and relentless on the offensive glass. Kaniho also plays the wing and is a valuable ballhandler when needed.
The Lady Lunas may have their most balanced roster in some time.
“They put in a lot of time in, working hard, training. It’s a long journey,” coach Kaniho said.
The long road also gives Lahainaluna time to incorporate different ideas and sets.
“We went to a four-low kind of offense where we stretched the defense out and take advantage of our ballhandling skills and go downhill,” Kaniho said. “We ran multiple sets early and we were able to see what was going to work for us.”
Punahou’s defensive pressure was a factor, leading Kaniho to put the ball in the hands of Ledjan Pahukoa, who is significantly stronger now than she was as a freshman.
“Punahou’s very aggressive. We needed our best ballhandler out there to control the flow, which we knew was going to take away from some of her offense, but the other girls stepped us and hit some big shots. Kiera stepped us early, Travina got us some big boards. Chaland hit a couple of big threes in that third quarter that really to me was the key to the game,” coach Kaniho said. “It was a two-point game before she hit those two.”
In a state where the tallest, sometimes strongest of athletes gravitate heavily to volleyball, it hasn’t quite happened in West Maui. Kaniho and Harris are major keys to the Lunas’ success.
“Travina is a sophomore and she’s pretty raw. We put a lot of work into her from the time we had her at the beginning of the season to now. Her growth is one of the biggest that I’ve seen in a long time,” Kaniho said. “Kiera is a senior. She’s a veteran. She’s also one of our better ball handlers, so we’re able to isolate a big on her, she can relieve pressure from Ledjan. Her family put in a lot of work with her and she does everything you ask of her, whether she’s got to play defense on their best player or she’s got to rebound. We know if we put the pieces in the right spots for her, we’re going to be successful.”
Team defense is what Lahainaluna used to stifle a normally productive Punahou offense. The Lunas limited playmaking opportunities for Laynee Torres-Kahapea. Now they face the challenge of facing Konawaena’s high-scoring guard, Kaliana Salazar-Harrell.
“Konawaena is Konawaena, one of the best teams in the state for years. Coach Bobbie’s one of the best coaches in the state. We’re going to watch some film, try to game plan and see what we can put in,” Kaniho said. “Hopefully, the girls step up and are ready for it tomorrow.”