The girls basketball state championship has long been coveted in the islands, but it is not just available to anyone.
No, the largest of the Koa trophies awaiting its rightful owner at Neal Blaisdell Center tonight is quite picky. After all, there were teams like Lahainaluna, with its mammoth win streak in the Maui Interscholastic League, hoping to return to the title game. Instead, Maryknoll turned the tables and became the fullcourt-pressing aggressor, forcing the speedy Lady Lunas into a jarring string of miscues. The 62-49 win unveiled a wrinkle that became a crease. A bonafide weapon in the Spartans’ arsenal.
Turnover, turnover, turnover. Nobody had put an iron grip on the Lunas like this on a long time. Press a pressing team? It worked on Friday night. That jolt, featuring the long arms of 6-foot Kamalu Kamakawiwo’ole all over the inbounds passer, was reminiscent of a Hilo boys team in the early 1990s. That squad had 6-3 Casey Newman deflecting and altering passes at the point of entry.
Unleashed. Lethal. Game changing. The Lunas’ luck got no better moments later. With a one-point deficit now 29-20, leading scorer Braenne Estabillo collided with Maryknol’s Moe Notoa, and both suffered injuries as a tooth of Notoa’s gashed Estabillo’s head.
Neither returned to the game. The Lunas carried Estabillo off the floor. She had scored 11 points in just 14 minutes. Without her, the Lunas endured, but were never quite the same. It took everything the Spartans had to fend off Lahainaluna, which uncharacteristically did not press for most of the game. Foul trouble was a key factor in that.
The final quarter wasn’t to Chico Furtado‘s liking. Unforced turnovers by his team with a double-digit lead had him inserting reserves who not only could enforce the press, but master clock management.
It was a recipe for victory that wasn’t part of the game plan. The offense, he said later, was listless. The Spartans needed a spark. They got it in a tidal wave that created 24 Lahainaluna turnovers.
Will they use it against two-time defending state champion Konawaena? The Wildcats were as basic and precise as ever, shutting down a hot Kamehameha squad from start to finish.
“We made sure we communicated on defense,” senior Celena Jane Molina said.
If it sounds simple, it is. But simple is often not easy. Most teams and players are not interested in simple. Especially on defense. Handling the Warriors motions and cuts for 32 minutes — few teams consistently managed to curtail them.
One night earlier, Farrington stayed with its 2-3 matchup zone. Mikiala Maio torched the Governors for 30 points, almost all in the post. She was the smaller competitor in the lane, but she used her quickness to exploit little gaps.
There were very few openings for her and Kalina Obrey against Konawaena. They combined for 24 points, but more than that, the Warriors never got into that same rhythm that had been a part of their late-season run.
Another key: the fullcourt press they used to rally past Farrington was not on display against Konawaena.
“We were expecting it,” Wildcats guard Mikayla Tablit said.
Understandably, almost nobody really wants to test a fullcourt Press against the seven-time state champions for too long. Not only do they have four to five capable ballhandlers on the court — Celena Jane Molina is in effect a near-6 foot guard — but the progress of Coach Bobbie Awa‘s younger Wildcats has been outstanding.
This is not the same team that struggled though the ‘Iolani Classic two months ago. The maturation process is what they and their coaches relish. In the post-Chanelle Molina era, the bumps were unavoidable, the learning curve was steep, but their tradition of leadership continues.
One day after getting eight steals against Kamehameha-Maui, Celena Jane Molina had far fewer takeaways. The rub is that the Wildcats don’t trap much, and they don’t gamble a whole lot. They simply get on you and never let go. They can switch defensively and rarely lose coverage. Most of their key players are interchangeable — point guard Cherilyn Molina covered 5-11 Kiana Vierra much of the game — and the closing speed of their fastbreak is matched only by a few teams.
One of them is Maryknoll. The Wildcats committed only five fouls in the second half against a talented Kamehameha squad that finished second to Maryknoll in the ILH. But not even the Spartans shut down the Warriors the way the Wildcats did.
Konawaena? Poised and focused. It isn’t until the opening tip that they show their cards. A suffocating defense. Complete teamwork on both ends. A big in Celena Jane Molina who can attack the rim, drive and kick, defend any position. Young posts willing to help in the paint. Arguably, the best defensive backcourt in the state.
Maryknoll? Hungry. Almost too hungry. Is this their time? Furtado watches the occasional glitch by a team still young, mostly juniors.
“The issue is we’re not playing a cerebral game,” he said.
Oh, he’s right, but 90 percent of the time, the Lady Spartans are in tune. It has taken some time, but Furtado has shown his cards, too. He has, in his words, allows his athletes out of the corral, blazing up and down the court like young mustangs. That’s true enough because he is fullcourt pressing while in the lead — he never let the Lunas off the hook all second half — for the first time in more than a decade. At least at the big dance.
“We pressed a lot,” he said, “in the early years at Kalaheo.”
Those teams formed an OIA dynasty for the Lady Mustangs: league titles from 1998 to ’02. State championships? They came close each time: ’97, fourth place; ’98 second; ’99, third; ’00, second; ’01, second.
Some of those Mustang teams pressed a lot, and some didn’t. It has taken years, but Furtado and staff are on the threshold. Again.
Last year, the sophomore-heavy Maryknoll Spartans pushed Konawaena hard, but the Wildcats pulled away for a 44-34 win. Maryknoll could have its first state crown since ’78. Furtado could finally break through.
Or Konawaena could simply capture its eighth state crown under a coach, like Furtado, who works on campus and is practically embedded in the soul of the school. House Awa protects its reign, more often than not. Tonight will be epic.