Pre-game: Konawaena-Lahainaluna, girls hoops

He doesn’t have to acknowledge anything or anyone, and neither does his team.

Yet, Todd Rickard does so. When he coached Lahainaluna girls basketball years ago, along with the Menehune hoops program in the community, it was a simple process that involved day-to-day workouts.

It was all about commitment, the kind that lacked in so many communities then, and even now. After all, there are plenty of bright minds who have a heart for the game of basketball. But committing the energy and time — who has that these days?

Rickard found a way. His programs found success and put Lahaina on the basketball map. How does a mid-sized school in a rural area surrounded by beautiful beaches and surfable waves find ways to narrow the attention and focus of athletes to one sport?

It wasn’t easy. But Rickard’s commitment set the template, and he has always spoken highly of programs at Konawaena and Punahou. Different as those schools are, Rickard always admired the passion and dedication of coaches like Bobbie Awa and Mike Taylor.

Now, the Lady Lunas are in position to play for the state championship. Tonight, they face one of his favorite programs, Konawaena. It won’t be easy in more than one way.

Konawaena has already beaten Lahainaluna twice in preseason games. But the teams also have a mutual respect and affinity.

“When we were at their tournament, they took really good care of us,” said Donald Awa, husband of Bobbie.

Rickard has often said that the Stingrays basketball club developed by the Awas since the early 1990s was the formula he always wanted to duplicate in Lahaina.

With many trips across the state for tournaments, Rickard’s Menehune program became the finest on Maui. While the rest of the Maui Interscholastic League struggles at the state-tourney level with the exception of Molokai, Lahainaluna has benefited from the Menehune, and Rickard has been the steersman all the way through.

The matchup itself is intriguing. Lahainaluna’s Milika Taufa is the best offensive center in the state, bar none. Point guard Maiki Viela (29 points against Punahou) was good as a sophomore, but has moved into an elite level as a junior. The Lunas’ trips to Oahu for preseason tournaments gave fans a chance to see Taufa and Viela progress and develop. Viela goes to her left as well as any guard in the state, but it’s her intelligence that makes her a potential player of the year candidate.

They haven’t seen a defense like Konawaena’s since losing to the ‘Cats in December. Any game against Konawaena comes down to numbers and weak links in the chain. At all times, Coach Awa has five players on the court who completely buy into the team defense concept. There is no toleration for weak effort, something that Awa has consistently preached and practiced from Day 1. So, if Konawaena brings five stout players at all times and another team has anything less — say, three all-out-effort players and two lazy ones — the Wildcats will eventually exploit the weak links. Once they touch the ball, it’s just a matter of time before a turnover results.

Even for fans who prefer more offense and less defense, watching Konawaena work both ends of the floor can be so entertaining. Better yet, the transition game after turnovers is unmatched.

It’s something to behold, seeing two country teams battle for the Division I state title. Neither comes from a region that has a multitude of outstanding D-I programs, which actually can make it tougher to stimulate and motivate teenaged athletes. But somehow, some way, Awa and Rickard have opened the eyes of their communities and shown them the big picture. That requires patience on the part of kids and their families when that mid-summer trip beckons and a whole lot of fundraisers are on the calendar.

For those who are 100 percent in, they’d have it no other way. If you love this game, you’ll love watching the championship game tonight either up close live or on TV.

So who wins tonight? Is Konawaena’s athleticism and lockdown defense going to produce another championship? Or is Taufa simply too big, too dominant inside?

If the Lunas don’t take care of the ball, there won’t be many entry passes to Taufa.

Conversely, Konawaena will meet a team that’s somewhat close to itself in athleticism on the perimeter. In addition, the Wildcats have enough depth underneath in Anuhea Wall, Misi U‘ulopa and Courtney Kaupu to keep a fresh body on Taufa.

Punahou did this last night and limited Taufa’s touches early on. She still finished with 17 points and 15 boards despite sitting most of the first half with foul trouble.

Oh yes, fouls. Can Taufa avoid them? Konawaena’s offense is based on motion and screens and mid-range shooting plus the occasional 3-point bomb. Backdoor cuts and layups. Taufa would seem to be safe from a lot of contact in this context unless she stays in the paint and in front of the basket full-time.

So which would be best: Taufa goes out to the high post with her man, or sloughs off to stay down low. It’s not like Konawaena will want to draw her out often; she’s not a major shotblocking presence.

The Wildcats won’t tweak much, if at all. They’ll play their game and worry less about any opponent’s strength and weakness.

One particular matchup of potential greatness: Viela versus Galdeira and/or Awa. Right now, there is no better on-ball defender than Awa, with her long arms, great anticipation and smart decisions. She doesn’t hack. She simply corners any weak ballhandler and positions herself to get a good angle on the ball, whether it’s up high or low. She picks her spots well.

Defense usually wins championships. Konawaena won its first state title in 2004 and has won three in all (’07, ’09).

Another title seems probable, but if it would ever be the time for the Lunas to reach the pinnacle, this might be it.

By Paul Honda


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