In a game that could’ve been fitted on a raceway, the final minutes of Lahainaluna-‘Iolani instead turned into survival of the fittest.
Maybe luckiest. Or most opportunistic. Third-seeded Lahainaluna’s 38-36 win over ‘Iolani in the quarterfinals of the Snapple/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships on Thursday night was epic, confounding and, ultimately, relief for the Lunas and heartbreak for the young Raiders.
“We advanced,” longtime Lahainaluna coach Todd Rickard said. “That’s the main thing.”
As expected, the matchup between Lahainaluna (21-4) and ILH runner-up ‘Iolani (16-9) had the intensity and electricity of a semifinal or final. On paper, the MIL champion Lunas are ranked No. 3 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10 and ‘Iolani is No. 4.
Everything pointed to a potential nail-biter. In game one of preseason (Nov. 9), Lahainaluna came to Oahu to play in the McKinley Black and Gold Classic. ‘Iolani edged the Lady Lunas 49-45, which was notable in two ways. One, the Raiders, being a young team, posted a big win early. But it also came against a Lahainaluna team missing two key players with injuries.
Fast-forward to Feb.1. Forward Susie Namoa, now playing despite having no cartilage in her right knee, suits up against ‘Iolani. Instead of a DNP, she posts 17 points and 11 rebounds. In the first quarter, when the Lunas raced to a 10-0 lead and entered the second stanza up 14-8, Namoa was flawless: nine points on 3-for-3 field-goal shooting and 3-for-3 free-throw shooting. She also hauled in five rebounds. In one quarter. There were also three turnovers, but that’s forgivable. She has no cartilage in her right knee.
“It’s bone on bone. The trainer said it’s always going to hurt. I get it iced after every game,” the senior said.
Her chronic knee condition explains, perhaps, why she had limited playing time in the second quarter: 1-for-1 (she splashed a straightaway 3-point shot), one steal. Nothing else.
Fast-forward to the fourth quarter. Lahainaluna’s lead, once as large as 22-10, is evaporating. Raider fans have a certain memory about state tournaments and MIL teams. Some time ago, it was Baldwin with soccer-basketball wiz kid Kami Kapaku who carried the Bears over the Raiders. Since then, it’s been the Lunas who have been mostly successful, at least against teams that are not Konawaena.
But the Raiders, whose four freshmen seemed more like freshmen in those early minutes of this game, are playing strong. Confident. The ninth graders are fearless now. Alexis Huntimer splashes a straightaway 3 to bring ‘Iolani within 32-25 late in the third quarter.
On the next trip, Lahainaluna feeds Namoa in the post. She dribbles one time into the paint to set up a spin move, but Kawai Kahalehoe is already there and takes the shoulder. She sells the collision like a pro, charging call. That prompts an audible boo-boo from a Lahainaluna assistant coach that one referee hears, and it’s a technical foul.
Kahalehoe makes the free throws, the Lunas’ lead is now 32-27 with 1:07 left in the third. In addition, officials then put the seatbelt rule on Rickard, who normally will roam his bench area to communicate plays and defenses to his team.
Kellie Okamura, a senior on a roster of mostly underclassmen, scores a layup before the buzzer, which is only possible because the Lunas attacked the paint with 10 seconds left on the clock. Shot is missed, Raiders get a bucket. When the fourth quarter begins, she hits two free throws to cut the lead to 35-31.
Lahainaluna’s speed-racer wiring is reset. The Lunas are in delay mode, first in a weave-dribble offense to start the fourth, and then in a four-corners spread. It is almost impossible to kill clock for an entire quarter and increase a lead, let alone maintain it, when the defense knows you’re not looking to score.
So ‘Iolani chips away while Lahainaluna commits five turnovers and scores just three points in the fourth stanza. The Raiders get all the way back, almost, and are down 37-36 after Lily Lefotu Wahinekapu steals the ball and feeds Tori Maeda for a layup with 2:50 remaining.
It’s anyone’s game, right?
Huntimer has an open look from the top. Shot misses.
Keiko Aotaki, the sharpshooting guard who missed preseason with a foot injury, steps to the free-throw line for Lahainaluna. She misses with 52.9 seconds left.
Maeda drives into the paint, spins for her patented mid-lane jumper from 5 feet. She never misses this. She misses.
Rachael Balagso goes to the line for Lahainaluna. Excellent ballhandling and attacking all game. She is a rock. She misses the one-and-one with 32 ticks left.
‘Iolani gets another chance to advance. Maeda drives baseline, passes to the wing, nobody there. Turnover. ‘Iolani’s fans are as vocal as ever, and the collective moan is pure anguish. But the game is far from over.
Braeanna Estabillo is fouled and marches to the line with 19.4 seconds left. She makes one, miss the next. ‘Iolani has the ball down 38-36 and calls time out with 14.6 on the clock.
Maeda drives from the top and angles left with tough defense on her. A lefty layup misses and Namoa rebounds, but there’s a collision, she falls down and is called for traveling with 1.5 seconds left. The Raiders burn their final time out.
The inbounds pass is lofted to Okamura near the top of the key. She dribbles. And dribbles again. The buzzer sounds before she gets her shot off. The ball was in the senior’s hands, and the Raiders followed their comeback script to a T. And just like that, their title hopes ended.
Was it Lahainaluna nearly giving away a precious state-tourney win, or ‘Iolani not taking advantage of opportunity after opportunity? After the game, Rickard was grateful, yet blunt.
“I’m going to tell (the team) that we almost blew it,” he said.
Namoa was neither surprised nor overwhelmed.
“We had a different game plan for ‘Iolani. They’re the same as us. They like to press. They like to run. They can shoot the 3,” she said. “They’re just like us, so that makes it hard to beat a team like that.”
The Raiders shot 11-for-33 from the arc in a win over Kahuku in the opening round. Tonight, they were 1-for-16 from deep.
It was the kind of game that required maximum, out-of-the-box work by players like Balagso. The 5-foot-2 point guard was a perfect example of fundamentals, boxing out every time she was under the rim defensively.
It’s the kind of work that the Lunas appreciate, particularly with three-time defending state champion Konawaena on deck in their semifinal matchup on Friday at Blaisdell Center. Lahainaluna won at Konawaena in preseason, 44-42.
“I didn’t play in that game, too,” Namoa recalled. “We were up by one point on the last play and Rachael boxed out strong. Caiyle (Kaupu) got called for going over the back.”
For Balagso, Estabillo and the other seniors, it has been all about getting to the big dance and performing in the clutch.
“The whole season, we talked about being seniors, being a senior-led team,” Balagso said. “I’m happy we won, but we have a lot of things to clean up.”