Naha Senior of Okinawa went 2-1 in the ‘Iolani Classic girls tournament, beating host ‘Iolani and Miramonte (Calif.) after losing to eventual champion Centennial on opening day. It may be the best win-loss mark by a team from Asia in the tournament’s history.
> Jin Lin (Nanjing, China) 1-2 (2012)
> Shenzen (China) 1-2 (2014)
> Tsinghua (Beijing, China) 2-4 (two entries), 2011 (most recent)
The Bears weren’t just fast and tough. They embraced the 30-second shot clock, seemingly happy to play as if the shot clock was set at 10 seconds. The ball was always, always in flight, whether it was a downcourt pass or a 3-pointer arching to the basket. Every rebound created an automatic trigger effect, Bears sprinting downcourt with their eyes on the outlet passer.
They play a style of basketball that was far more common in the U.S. during the 1970s and ‘80s. The advent of the shot clock in the college game was mainly to prevent flat-out stalling, but it also led to an anchoring mentality of working every possession dry until the shot clock was inside 5 seconds. And that led to lower scores at the college level for most teams.
Not for teams like Loyola Marymount during the Paul Westhead years. Certainly not for Division III Grinnell College in the past decade. And clearly not for Naha Senior, a roster of players who shoot what looks like a two-handed set shot (the shooting arm follows through) at any time they are open. It doesn’t matter if the game clock is at :20 left in the quarter, the ball is going up if any of the Bears has an open 3.
It’s fun to watch and more fun to play this way. Naha Senior has won the last five Okinawa championships. The wins over ‘Iolani and Miramonte may not be saying anything about the evolution of basketball in East Asia. Or they might be saying a whole lot. Naha is probably two or three players — taller rebounders and post scorers — away from challenging for an ‘Iolani Classic championship someday. Probably sooner rather than later. It might not be Naha. It could be any progressive program from Japan or the rest of Asia, because precision plus unselfishness plus deadly accuracy from the arc are generally undefendable, and the missing component is simply a bit more size.
The vibe of this Classic, and there aren’t a whole lot of girls tournaments we have data on compared to the boys, was slightly different. Sure, a powerful team from Las Vegas won it all, and Centennial was a team fans could draw inspiration from thanks to a powerful, fast, tough 5-11 player in Eboni Walker. And the runner-up was Southridge, another superb mainland team. But Maryknoll did finish third. Naha took fifth, beating a very good Miramonte team.
In all, the teams from Asia and Hawaii (Kalani and ‘Iolani plus Maryknoll) didn’t necessarily win more games than usual against mainland teams. I might be the only spectator at the tourney who thought about it this way.
> Southridge overpowers Kalani 66-39. Maryknoll gets past Miramonte 67-59. (Btw, after seeing Miramonte’s tweets online before the tourney, I kind of felt bad for them, coming all this way so joyfully. Their fans were so glum on day two, just felt for them. Happy for Maryknoll though.) Oregon City ekes out a 56-54 win over ‘Iolani. Centennial pulls away for a 56-36 win over Naha. Hawaii/Asia one win, three losses.
> Miramonte blows the game open in the second half and beats Kalani 64-34. Naha stuns ‘Iolani 60-52 in a game that doesn’t count as Asia/Hawaii versus Mainland. Southridge knocks Maryknoll out 63-39. Oregon City-Centennial, not applicable to this silly summary. Hawaii/Asia no wins, two losses vs. Mainland behemoths.
‘Iolani-Kalani, n/a. Naha over Miramonte, confirming that the Bears are the REAL DEAL. (I missed this game to see my one and only game at the OIA-ILH Challenge boys tourney, Saint Louis’ 56-53 win over Roosevelt. No, I don’t regret this. Not really. Maybe a tiny bit. It’s not like I’ll never see Naha again this year. What? They play in Okinawa? Nohhhh!) Maryknoll pulls away from Oregon City 62-49. Southridge-Centennial quite a game, n/a. That’s Hawaii/Asia two wins, no losses against Mainland programs.
The math: Hawaii/Asia three wins, five losses against the Mainland.
I know this is skewed. There are no average teams that come here from the North American continent. Almost never, ever. (The number of girls teams from the mainland that have a sub-.500 record in the Classic is very, very, very, very low. Granada (Livermore, Calif.) was 1-2 in 2007. Salesian College Prep (Richmond, Calif.) 1-2, 2016. That’s two. That is all.
And the local entrants into the Classic have usually been stronger programs, with a mix of middling teams, even from D-II. (Kalani has been in D-II recently, but moves up to D-I this season. Do not be surprised if the Falcons win the OIA.)
This wasn’t the most successful run by local/Asia teams in terms of wins and losses. After all, when Konawaena won in 2011 and 2015, the Wildcats accounted for three wins by themselves. But the winds are shifting ever so slightly. The ball is still round and the rim is still oh, so large, and teams that launch their spheres from 19 feet, 9 inches and beyond are capable of so much potentially spectacular success.
But there is this: by and large, the talent pool in girls basketball hasn’t been the same since the 2000s. Quality level at the top, still elite. But the depth hasn’t been the same. Maryknoll graduates nearly a dozen seniors at the end of this academic year. Konawaena placed seventh in last year’s Classic and went on to defend its state title, but Coach Bobbie Awa declined an invite this year. She said her young team had work to do at practice, and that it wouldn’t be fair to the teams traveling from the mainland.
Punahou is very young and very talented, but it’s been a long, long, long, long time since any Buffanblu team played in the Classic. (Which is the main reason, I’m guessing, that Punahou started a tourney of its own.) Lahainaluna? Similar age-wise to Konawaena, and I don’t know if the Lunas were invited this year. They also lose some key seniors to graduation soon.
Kamehameha, perhaps, can help carry the torch for island teams in next season’s Classic. Sacred Hearts, a team heavy with underclassmen talent, maybe? Or how about Kahuku in one or two years, after Coach LaToya Wily’s team develops young players year-round?
More than likely, it’ll take a conglomeration of talent situated at one campus to bring a Classic title to the islands again. Culture does matter, and great players gravitate to a place that cultivates their hopes and dreams for the future. Chico Furtado filled that void for years at Kalaheo. Who fills that niche in the OIA?
It’s a tough call. There have been nice runs for a handful of seasons, but sustaining it beyond that is extremely difficult in the OIA, where district lines and inconsistent offseason hoops for girls are tough to overcome. Kahuku had a roll going for a time, not long after Wily starred there, but eventually, the female hoopsters there gravitated to volleyball full-time. Farrington had an amazing run that peaked with Brydgette Tatupu-Leopoldo, but maintaining that level was difficult without year-round feeder programs in the area. Think back to Pearl City, which won the OIA under Michael Morton a decade or so ago. No feeders, no sustenance. Soccer and softball, plus volleyball, seem to draw the athletes in Pearl City and Aiea.
How many coaches have stepped down in recent years? Mona Fa‘asoa finally retired this year and is happily enjoying life as her son’s biggest fan. Hinano Higa left Roosevelt after years of success. Caroline Tatupu returned to Farrington, where she led the Lady Governors on that run. Kailua, a rising star program under Mandy Llamedo in recent seasons, apparently struggling with numbers now. McKinley and Kaimuki finding their footing with experienced coaches who lack large enrollments.
Out West, Leilehua (Elroy Dumlao) and Mililani (Patrick Basilio) have been consistent over the years with veteran coaches. The vast pool of athleticism on the Leeward Coast has never really turned into a basketball mecca, not with softball and soccer in prime status. But there is always hope personified when programs turn out college-level prospects.
And so it is with girls basketball in the public schools of Oahu, where gym time is always a battle with boys basketball, JV teams and everyone operating on a limited time basis. We had a peak roughly one decade ago. Another peak will come, maybe, one of these decades. Maybe sooner with the way the ILH has been recharged — seven teams are in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. For now, there is gratification for great basketball — thanks to Centennial and Southridge — and the wonder of what Naha Senior and Maryknoll are doing in the now and in the near future.