After two days of the New City Nissan/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships, here’s a look at what could’ve been (a.k.a. The Roundball Lamentation Blues).
>> Blue Bears
For a good stretch, the Baldwin Bears had Roosevelt frozen in time. Roosevelt couldn’t seem to make a layup or 3, and though they were behind 13-0 at the start, Baldwin was just a bucket or two from turning this into a real battle. It was 15-6 when Roosevelt’s shooting went down the drain. But Baldwin couldn’t capitalize. Easy layups, missed. Open perimeter shots, missed. Maybe there was some fatigue there after beating Leilehua the night before.
But every league champion gets a seeded, opening-round bye. And perhaps that’s where the Bears, the MIL runners-up, couldn’t make up the difference. But coach Angel Kalehuawehe worked wonders with this squad, and for awhile, at least, they were the best Baldwin team since the Kami Kapaku days.
Note: Kiana Lynn Kalehuawehe, a senior guard, is one of the fastest in the tourney. She finished with 13 points and five rebounds, running like the wind on Bear fastbreaks.
>> Vikings capsized
The gritty Hilo Vikings were one play or one shot away from advancing to the state tourney. Down 68-66, they had the ball with 6 seconds left, but Shayla Guthier’s 25-footer missed, and Maryknoll escaped. Guthier scored 25 points in a phenomenal performance despite a shoulder injury. Losing Alexis Pana, who fouled out with more than 6 minutes to play, was a key factor.
Hilo loses two starters, Guthier and Chaley Cabalis, to graduation, and the rest of the squad will return. The Vikings have knocked on the door the past few years and coach Ben Pana extracts every ounce of effort out of a team that is 5-6 and under with the exception daughter Alexis (5-10), Cabalis (5-7) and Cherish Quiocho (5-7).
Sharlei Graham-Bernisto is one of the best on-ball defenders from end to end in the islands. Mandi Kawaha, a freshman, showed vast potential when she got minutes (against Maryknoll), and Faith Katie Loeak was a blur on the fastbreak.
This team came thisclose to knocking out the ILH champions. It’s been more than a decade since I last heard from Oahu-based fans who knocked neighbor-island programs. If there are still any doubters out there, they sure are quiet right about now.
>> Twin towers and traffic
Punahou had the right blueprint for a win over Konawaena. Though they were the defending state champions, the Buffanblu — ranked fifth in the Top 10 — didn’t get much respect or help from the HHSAA seeding committee with this matchup. (And vice-versa for Konawaena.)
But this is a economically-challenged era in high school sports, and no entity can afford to discourage crowds from flocking to the state tourney. That’s why, going back years and years, the HHSAA has usually stacked at least one bracket with a major matchup in the quarterfinal round. Pitting Konawaena and Punahou, arguably the two most historically successful girls programs of this generation, guaranteed a lot of fans in McKinley’s gym, as well as watchers on TV.
The Buffanblu had the execution to go with the game plan. Elle Uyeda rained three treys in the opening quarter, thwarting Konawaena’s defensive scheme. But the Wildcats continued to crowd the low post, where Tyra Moe and Va‘e Malufau are often prolific, while adjusting to get a hand up on Uyeda, who didn’t make another three in the contest.
In fact, after shooting nearly 50 percent from the field in the opening quarter, Punahou shot 8-for-23 the rest of the night. Moe was limited to 2-for-5 shooting (plus 3-for-4 at the foul line). One of her buckets was a desperation 3-pointer late in the game. It’s a shot she can make much more often; she works on it. But in the offense Punahou runs, she’s on the elbow or post. No argument there. Moe finished with eight points and seven boards.
Malufau was 2-for-6 from the field and 2-for-3 at the foul line. She finished with six points and nine boards. No defense had smothered the twin towers as well as Konawaena did. All night, the Wildcats moved their feet, fronted Punahou’s bigs and never stopped moving in with helpside defense.
A lot of teams would give up at a certain point, fatigued and sore from battling Moe and Malufau, who both kept trying to seal defenders to get entry passes. But that’s the thing about Konawaena. They just never stop. They never surrender. We saw this when they played the huge mainland teams. We saw it last night.
The good news for Punahou is that their rotation is all underclassmen and will return. They have shooters at the arc — Lexie Taylor hit a big 3 in the second quarter last night — and will likely keep getting better. They have to. With Malufau and Moe attracting so much attention inside, Punahou has to hit that open 3 to punish defenses. The alternative in 2016 would be too similar to this one in an ILH tournament that features Maryknoll — which will return just about everyone — and a state tourney that will feature most of the same Konawaena Wildcats.
>> Bleeding Red
The Raiders of ‘Iolani can only wonder. They knocked off Maryknoll during the ILH tournament. They had Punahou on the ropes, and if not for a missed shot or two, or a no-call on three or four Punahou travels (I’m still going to post that highlight video at some point), ‘Iolani would be in this state tourney.
How would the Raiders fare against Konawaena? Assuming they would’ve been in Punahou’s slot, it would’ve been tough. When you’re a fast, running, 3-point shooting team going up against a faster squad that defends better than anyone, it’s rarely a good situation. Punahou had the better matchup in terms of personnel, and they’ve proven over the years (under Mike Taylor, and last year under Kevin Velasco) that they know how to use their bigs and speed to get by Konawaena.
That being said, the Raiders were playing very good basketball late in the season. They didn’t defend the low post extremely well, but against Konawaena, they wouldn’t really have to. Sierra Buscher is fine against any post scorer with her length, hops and toughness. But I don’t think the Raiders would’ve beaten Konawaena in the quarterfinals. Good game, but edge to Kona.
If the pairings had been different, who knows? And it could’ve been different if ‘Iolani had snuck in. Remember, Punahou was unbeaten early on and is the defending state champ, which adds up to a lot in the eyes of the seeding committee. It’s possible ‘Iolani would’ve still landed in that slot, playing Kailua first and winning a close game. (The teams met in preseason and ‘Iolani won by 25.)
If the Raiders had matched up in the opening round against Baldwin or Leilehua, Radford or Mililani, I think they find a way to win via fullcourt pressure and fastbreaks. Close, but victorious. Against Hilo, though, it would’ve been a big task.
There are always gripes about the ILH not getting enough state-tourney berths, but the ecosystem of prep sports has brought us to this point. The OIA, which has roughly half of the state’s athletic programs, doesn’t need the ILH. And if the ILH ever gets tired and wants to quit the current ratio system, it would have to start its own state tourney. There’s no other league that would buy in.
The OIA holds the trump cards and always has, at least since 1970 when the public schools of Honolulu parted ways with the private schools that were slurping up busloads of talent. Stealing is too harsh a word. Recruiting? That’s precise.
So some fans may jabber on about the inequities of life. I don’t disagree. I’d love to see the ILH’s third-place team play in the girls hoops D-I state tourney. But the trump cards are in the OIA’s hands, and that’s not changing for a long, long time.
The ILH has been, and probably always will be, a cut-throat, cannibalistic league. Student-athletes and their families gravitate to the most prestigious institutions. The biggest whale of all — and what ecosystem is without the dominant alpha beast? — continues to lure talent not just from public elementary and middle schools, but from other private schools as well.
It’s gotten to the point where Mid-Pacific can barely field a girls basketball team due to low turnout and numbers. But MPI has little choice but to stay in D-I rather than return to D-II, where it really would have a proper home. The ILH’s rules are such that athletic programs can place only one sport in D-II while competing in D-I for most sports.
But I digress, as usual. ‘Iolani would’ve added a lot of fun to this tourney, but Punahou provided a lot of fun — and intrigue — too. I say split the difference. Expand to 16 teams and eliminate the advantage of that opening-round bye.