For 24 minutes, the Mililani Trojans seemed on the verge of a minor miracle.
With a key starter, Kalena Gibson, out after an injury during a win over Kaiser on Thursday, the Lady Trojans lost their best defender, a key rebounder, shot blocker, ball handler, interior shooter and slasher. There was no replacing the slinky, tough junior.
And yet, here they were after three quarters in the OIA semifinal round, tied with Kalani at 37. This is when all of the Lady Falcons’ sweat paid off. Swarming after Mililani with fullcourt pressure on made buckets and missed shots alike, the Falcons didn’t reap big dividends during those three periods.
But like the old Georgetown Hoyas’ fullcourt press, or even the 1990s’ Arkansas Razorbacks “40 Minutes of Hell,” Kalani started to wear the Trojans down. Turnovers led to Kalani buckets, including two treys by Kaylie Espinas and one more by Alayna Akiona, during a 10-0 run that provided the Falcons with a 47-37 lead.
That’s when coach Chi Mok had his team spread the court against a tiring Mililani man-to-man defense. The idea, he said later, was to make the Trojans chase. At that point, the team that went unbeaten in the OIA West had just three team fouls and time was beginning to run out.
For the most part, the Falcons tried their best, but it was far from smooth. For a team that is programmed to run and gun, then execute halfcourt offense — quite well, to be frank — taking air out of the ball seemed a bit unnatural. One shooter gunned a 3 and missed. Mililani cut the lead to seven.
The Trojans start fouling en masse. Kalani misses one-an-ones. The lead gets chipped down to 5, then 2. By the time the game is under the 1-minute mark, Mililani has its chance. With 3 seconds left, Dahlis Sablay, the super sophomore who finished with 19 points, gets a clean look off the dribble from the top.
How did she get open? Sablay’s straightaway 3 misses, Ardona’s putback misses, and it was probably after the buzzer. The hope for a Mililani miracle is dashed. Kalani won 47-45.
Somehow, Kalani willed its way to victory with sheer hustle and grit, then nearly gave the game away, and still managed to advance to the OIA championship game.
The Falcons could be, and should be, grateful this is 2018. The OIA has as much parity as any year in the past two decades. Talent is young at a lot of campuses. Kalani (13-8, 9-2 OIA) is blessed with a healthy dose of senior leadership and experience.
If the Falcons beat Moanalua on Wednesday, it will be the first OIA Division girls basketball title since 2008. It will also be quite a sequel to Kalani’s league crown in D-II last year. The difference in the year since Weeks has left until now is the structure set by Mok, a former ‘Iolani intermediate coach.
The time outs down the stretch. The delay game. It’s classic. It’s textbook. It’s Clock Management 101. Even with some Kalani fans hollering at the top of their voices in the bleachers for their team to keep launching 3s and stop taking time outs, Mok and his staff did their part to keep Kalani on track for a possible league title.
“We took a couple of 3s we didn’t need. It’s a shooter’s mentality and that’s what we reinforce in them, so it’s hard to switch sometimes,” Mok said. “All we had to do was knock down free throws, but we missed and that let (Mililani) back in.”
Of course, it took a lot of energy to get back to square one. Kalani trailed for most of the first half, but rallied to tie it at 21.
“It showed what they’re capable of. We talked about going into the lockerroom at halftime with momentum,” Mok said.
It was, above all else, complete, all-out team effort. Espinas led the way with 13 points, Logan Luke tallied wight and Heidi Kishaba — back from a meniscus injury — added seven. Statistics don’t quite measure how relentless Kalani’s fullcourt pressure was. Daesha Viela (five points) and Lilehina Oyama (four) didn’t score big, but along with their teammates, they gave their fans hope by making the Trojans work. And work. And work.
Sablay, the energizing force at point guard, sometimes broke the pressure alone. Other times, she ran out of space and Kalani forced another turnover.
That might not be as effective against Moanalua, which has a solid crew of ballhandlers.
“It’s going to be a fun game,” Mok said of Wednesday’s title tilt. “We’ve become rivals.”