In the space of one off-season and a few weeks of preseason, the young Kamehameha Warriors have become regal.
With a 57-50 victory over Arizona powerhouse Hamilton, Kamehameha captured the championship of the I Mua Invitational.
Kamehameha had its share of challenges against Hamilton, a two-time Arizona 6A state champion, but clutched up in every key moment down the stretch. Center Nihoa Dunn scored 18 points, including 14 in the first half to spark the Warriors to a 28-21 lead. The Warriors played like champions from the start, attacking a talented, disciplined Hamilton (Ariz.) squad of 6-6, 6-4 and 6-footers relentlessly – and wisely.
There were pitfalls along the way as Hamilton center Callie Hinder easily roofed every Warrior who tried to shoot over her in the paint, including Dunn, who spent most of her time in mid-range, pulling the 6-6 junior away from the rim, using her shooting touch as a crucial difference maker.
“I don’t get the opportunity to play people of that height, so I have to take advantage of it and learn from it,” Dunn said. “For me, if they’re taller than me I kind of hope they’re slower than me so I try to pump fake, go to the basket and run them out.”
Ella Malew led the Huskies with 11 points. Savanna Creal added nine and Kayla Adams tallied eight.
When the Huskies adjusted to Dunn, her teammates stepped up. Mikylah Labanon came up with a layup in traffic and a breakaway bucket, and Rylee Paranada scored scored on a twisting layup in the paint. McKenzie Alapai’s 3-pointer with 1:07 remaining was the dagger, turning a four-point lead into a seven-point cushion.
Kamehameha coach Pua Straight put her team’s depth to use. The Warrior reserves had some struggles in the first half against Hamilton’s 2-2-1 three-quarter press, but came up huge in the second half.
“I trust all of the girls. Also, it’s preseason. We’re trying to give them time in those minutes. Give a lot of girls really valuable minutes to grow,” Straight said.
The trust across the lineup, Straight noted, goes back to their youth. A year ago, they had five freshmen and five sophomores on a team that went deep into the postseason. One of the freshmen was Dunn.
“We all believe in each of and every one of us no matter who goes in first or second. We have that belief in each other,” Dunn said. “Even when things get crazy, we still stick together.”
Depth also allowed the Warriors to do what they’ve done to a number of Hawaii opponents: bring fierce on-ball pressure.
“For us, our big things are pressuring on defense, being able to rotate, being able to pick up in fullcourt with our athleticism,” Straight said. “Being able to get teams tired, and then we’re a good offensive rebounding team, as well. So far, we’re averaging over 50 percent on our offensive rebounds.”
Hamilton’s press was a menace for No. 4 Waiakea and No. 5 Maryknoll. It wreaked some havoc on the Warriors, too, but they kept damage by the persistent Huskies under control just enough to maintain the lead. Kamehameha positioned Nihoa, a 6-footer, along the sideline to make passes over the traps near halfcourt.
“We were trying to position our bigger players in the appropriate places to pass out. We got to watch (Hamilton) for the couple of days and we knew that they pressured and gave people a hard time,” Straight said. “We talked about going to the ball, pass fakes, making sure you’re not trying to dribble through that. They did a really good job.”
It is probably the biggest signature win for the Warriors during Straight’s era as head coach. It probably won’t be the last with a team that loves playing tough defense, carrying an aggressive edge on offense while consistently making the extra pass.
“I think just the way they played together on both sides. Defensive energy is what we’re really trying to build confidence in, but offensively, as well. They’re very unselfish. One thing we say is a lot is one more. One more pass, giving up a good shot for a great shot and being able to find each other. Our energy on the bench all game long is another thing I’m proud of,” Straight said.
Hamilton coach Trevor Neider hoped to see his team enjoy the best of both worlds — the beauty of Oahu and winning a tournament title. They came very close to the latter.
“The whole point of this trip was just to have fun. We’re exhausted. We’ve had a great time. The hosts have been great. Everyone’s been fun to be with and really welcoming. We knew we were going to play some great basketball. We just want to get better as we progress through the season,” Neider said.
George Courtney, a Kamehameha graduate who coaches and writes about prep hoops in Arizona, expects Hamilton to be a top-4 team in the Open Division. They are currently in 6A. Hamilton and Arizona 2A powerhouse Miami connected to the I Mua Invitational through Courtney.
“ It was just a great event. Ultimately, I believe we gave experiences to kids not just in the islands, but the kids from Arizona. They were able kind of get to know who I am and see where I come from. I’m super excited they were able to come out,” Courtney said. “This last game was an instant classic. It just seemed Hamilton couldn’t put the ball in the hoop and Kamehameha shoots very well. Coach Pua does a heck of a job with her group. They’re going to have a huge season.”
He sees a huge season ahead for Hamilton, too.
“Right now, it is a gauntlet. They play in the 6A classification, but with their power points, I’m pretty sure they’re going to qualify for the Open Division of the state tournament. I think they’re at least a final four team a a minimum,” Courtney added.
Neider is optimistic. The program won 6A state titles in 2016 an ’19.
“I know we have the potential to do that. Thee’s a lot of great teams. We’ve got to shoot the ball better. That’s a weakness, a little bit. We play so hard. We love the way we play hard. We do things the right way so we’ll keep jelling, working together, stay confident and stay the course, you know, and we’ll be right there. You’ve got to have a good game on the right now.”
Shooting will improve over time.
“We were 3-of-14 in the paint in the first half which, you’re not going to be a really goo team like we just played. We ended up 5-of-13 from the free-throw line. You play a great team like we just played, you can’t have those numbers and come out with the win,” Neider said.
Dunn first impressed him earlier in the tourney.
“She’s a really good player. We watched her in a couple of the prior games. She’s got a 15-footer, can put the ball on the floor a little bit. She did a little bit of everything. I think she shot it really well. She’s got a high ceiling. She’s a nice player. The whole team’s a really tough team,” Neider said. “Even contested shots with a hand up, she was still knocking shots down.”