In the big picture, it was more than a victory for House Awa in this roundball game of thrones.
It was a celebration for all the sisters and nieces, uncles and aunties, grandmas and grandpas who made Konawaena’s latest state championship happen. It just occurs to be 2015, and in a span of 12 seasons, Bobbie Awa and her staff have firmly and persistently guided their players to a half-dozen crowns.
As expected, it was a close battle for more than three quarters, and in the end, Konawaena’s blend of patience and aggression, good shot selection and ballhandling skill wore down the high-scoring Lahainaluna Lunas in the title game of the New City Nissan/HHSAA Girls Basketball Division I State Championships. In the end, it was a 51-41 win for the Wildcats behind 27 points by the tourney’s most outstanding player, Chanelle Molina.
A 30-1 season with signature wins over nationally-ranked programs (Riverdale Baptist of Maryland, Miramonte of California), another state title… only another mainland powerhouse, St. Mary’s (Calif.), was able to put a slight blemish on the slate.
Lahainaluna (24-2) had a perfect season against every team not named Konawaena, which was responsible for the Lady Lunas’ only two defeats.
“It’s everything, the hard work we put in to get this far,” Lunas guard Fiemea Hafoka said. “For the season to end like that, it sucks.”
“We wanted the best for our senior,” Keleah-Aiko Koloi said, referring to Matafolau Hafoka. “We tried our hardest, knowing the situation, but we didn’t pull out the win that we wanted. Konawaena’s a really phenomenal team. We just didn’t perform the well we needed to at the right time.”
“The main thing,” Fiamea Hafoka added, “is we gave everything we’ve got and hopefully we’ll return next year and pull out a victory from there.”
For Konawaena, it was all about teamwork. Crisp, offensive execution with only six turnovers against an athletic, aggressive Lahainaluna defense. Defensive adjustments that prompted Konawaena defenders to bring the heat and attack the Lunas’ low-post scorers on every touch, much the way they did against Punahou (Tyra Moe and Va‘e Malufau) two nights earlier.
It was also about clutch performance.
>> A smooth and powerful Mercedes
Mercedes Ihi Victor was relentless on both ends, using her length to clog the paint on defense, and running the floor in attack mode to score 14 points. Celena Jane Molina had eight points, nine rebounds, two timely steals and knocked down a 3. Again.
“We wanted to run some screens off the top and then Celena hit that wide-open shot. She knocked that down, and then Chanelle hit one so we knew we could stay in that offense, but then when we get a lead big enough, we’ll bring it out,” Awa said.
Victor and Celena Jane Molina were selected to the all-tournament team.
>> Eight is great
Eight Wildcats played at least 10 minutes, a trend that began with the arrival of assistant coach Donald Awa for Thursday’s semifinal round. After coaching the Konawaena boys to victory on Wednesday night, he caught a plane and brought his contribution. Bobbie Awa noted that she likes to “ride my horses”. With her husband there, backup guards Taylor Bates and Mikayla Tablit, a freshman, got more minutes and kept their starters’ legs fresher.
Bates (3 minutes) and Tablit (6) didn’t get much run against Punahou, but against Roosevelt, Bates got far more (14), as did Tablit (18). The relatively slower tempo of the final with Lahainaluna kept each reserve’s minutes at 10, but depth — quality depth — made a big difference this week.
“Deep bench. When we had a lot of rest, we play smarter,” Molina said. “When you’re tired, you don’t play as smart, but this year, we had a deep bench so we did a lot of good plays and played smart.”
While Lahainaluna put seven players in the game, Konawaena used eight. That difference proved crucial in the long run. The Lunas had nearly as many turnovers (16) as field goals (17) even though Konawaena was in a halfcourt man defense, going fullcourt only occasionally — but just often enough.
>> Adaptation and personnel
Molina enjoyed the heavy play call for double-high post set.
“We wanted to run the horns offense and we got some open shots,” Awa said.
The horns set was popularized, in part, by the Miami Heat during their title run. Ray Allen would often serve as a threat and decoy in the corner, while LeBron James and Dwayne Wade operated in on the elbows and occasionally in the low post.
Awa didn’t call the horns set much until the BIIF playoffs, she said, and then this week at states. Because opposing guards were occupying the corners, where gunners like Aloha Salem, Lindsay Bates and Taylor Bates would spot up, the only extra defensive help on Molina was available from the opposite elbow or low post. When a defender left the post to help, Molina found teammates wide open for layups.
“I love it,” Molina said. “There’s a lot of options to that. You know, the iso play, kick out, penetrate. It’s everything, all in one play.”
Molina was at her finest, hitting 11 of her 17 field-goal attempts, and outjumping 6-foot-1 posts for eight rebounds. She also had three steals, including a key breakaway for a bucket that pushed the lead to 49-40 in the final minutes, and two assists. She did it all without committing a single turnover as at least two college coaches looked on. Smiling.
“We had to keep being aggressive to the basket,” Molina said.
Her lines for the tourney:
vs. Punahou: 16 points (5-11 FG, 6-9 FT), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals, 3 turnovers
vs. Roosevelt: 20 pts (7-13 FG, 5-6 FT), 9 reb, 8 ast, 5 stl, 3 to
vs. Lahainaluna: 27 pts (11-17 FG, 4-6 FT), 8 reb, 3 ast, 2 stl, 0 to
21 ppg, 23-41 FG (.561), 15-21 FT (.714), 7.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 3.7 spg, 2 tpg
>> Grind time
It came down to all-in and all-out defense. Lahainaluna was fairly efficient when it didn’t turn the ball over, scoring 41 points in roughly 48 possessions — not terrible at all. But another key was this: the Lunas only had five offensive boards, partly because they managed to take only 37 shots. Aside from Folau Hafoka — she missed seven shots inside, but all were in close — the best opportunities for putbacks — and the Lunas didn’t get many of those second chances.
In their win over Radford, the Lunas were 28-for-62 from the field, and of those 34 misses, they grabbed 14 offensive boards — a hefty percentage. Against Maryknoll, they were 21-for-48, pulling down another 14 offensive caroms out of 27 misses, a whopping percentage. That’s why going 17-for-37 against Konawaena and grabbing just five out of 20 missed shots was a huge factor.
“We just wanted to keep getting pressure on the ball,” Awa said. “We said at halftime, defense is going to win this championship, ladies. Because of our fullcourt pressure, and we had the legs to do it, I think we tired them out a little. You start getting tired with the ball and making mistakes. Once we got momentum, we kept riding it, and we started hitting shots, so that was nice.”
Whether it was House Molina (tournament most outstanding player Chanelle, all-tourney selection Celena Jane and super frosh PG Cherilyn), or House Victor (all-tourney pick Ihi and sister Victoria), or House Bates (savvy guards Taylor and Lindsay), the Wildcats had depth, experience and — most importantly — great defense on the path to another championship.
Without that swarming defense, the Wildcats would have succumbed to the slashing attacks of Cameron Fernandez (11 points) and Fiemea Hafoka (12 points), who both made the all-tourney team. Fernandez was active from the start, while Hafoka rained in a couple of first-half 3-pointers to catch Konawaena off guard.
As always, Awa made her adjustments. Fernandez got only three shot attempts in the second half — making them all — but losing her effectiveness without her usual touches. Hafoka went 1-for-5 from the field after halftime as the Wildcats blanketed her.
“We’ve been doing that all season long. We’re outmatched (in terms of size). We wanted to pressure the ball. Last night (against Roosevelt), we got beat when we started doubling up (on the low post) or even trying to trap, so we just wanted to play straight help side, simple adjustments in the second half,” she said.
Without the swarm, Konawaena would’ve fell victim to the powerful posts of Lahainaluna. The double- and triple-teams on the block kept twin towers of Folau Hafoka and Koloi gasping for air under a sea of white uniforms. Folau Hafoka scored on low-post moves twice late in the first half, but could get only four shots off after intermission, missing them all. She finished 2-for-9 from the field. Like Fernandez, Koloi (11 points, four boards) made all three of her field-goal attempts in the second half, but that was the extent of it, along with one made free throw.
The Lunas had nearly as many turnovers (five) as field goals made (seven) after halftime, and it was all due to Konawaena’s commitment — and immense sense of urgency — on defense.
Konawaena’s fourth-quarter lockdowns were superb in upset wins over nationally-ranked Riverside Baptist (Md.) and Miramonte (Calif.) during the ‘Iolani Classic. It was the same this week in the state championships. Punahou, ranked fifth in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, was a fearsome foe for any team in the quarterfinal round. Konawaena limited the bigger Buffanblu to 4-for-9 shooting from the field in the fourth stanza, pulling away with a 17-9 run in a 51-34 win.
One night later, the Wildcats withstood a furious third-quarter rally attempt by Roosevelt, then pinned the Rough Riders down in the fourth. Roosevelt shot 1-for-7 in the final frame as Konawaena won going away with a 13-4 run and a 54-33 victory.
The Wildcats then turned a tight game — a 41-38 lead — into another lockdown. They limited Lahainaluna to 1-for-5 shooting from the field in the final 8 minutes and closed the win — and the title run — out with a 10-3 blitz. The 51-41 win matched the same score of Konawaena’s first title victory in ’04, a victory over Kahuku.
Lahainaluna looked every bit the part of a champion. Speed. Rebounding. High-pressure defense. In the heat of Konawaena’s seizure of the game in that second half, the Lunas just didn’t have an answer for all that relentless on-ball pressure, all those double- and triple-teams on the low post.
That’s something that Lahainaluna can work on in these coming months, in the summer tournaments on the mainland. That’s something they can use as seriously strong motivation. The bittersweet end could turn out to be a new beginning for Todd Rickard’s team.
It was the final chapter in the intriguing twist that began in preseason, when three Lunas — the Bates twins and Salem — transferred to Konawaena. The three were key parts of the Wildcats’ rotation all season long, and though they went scoreless in the title game, they provided spacing because of their ability to shoot from deep and stretch defenses. Taylor Bates had a key steal during Konawaena’s second-half run.
Whatever the mixed emotions may have been for the Lunas about their former teammates, this much is true: because of their departure, Lahainaluna’s young roster got a lot of bonus seasoning and experience. They had to learn on the job. Konawaena will have some holes to fill next season. Lahainaluna’s rotation, even with the graduation of Folau Hafoka, will be set with at six experienced returnees.
At Kealakekua, nestled in the ranch lands and coffee farms up Mauka, the Wildcats will finally have a chance to celebrate their first state title since 2012. Yes, there is life and a grand prize after Lia Galdeira and Dawnyelle Awa. They’re perched up on the throne once again, and with all but their three steadying, senior transfer guards — the Bates sisters and Salem — due to return next season, the road to the 2016 state championship once again will run through Konawaena.
By then, Chanelle Molina will be less than a year away from moving on to the next level. She has scholarship offers from Hawaii, Washington State, Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona State and “a couple of Cali schools,” she said.
“We’ve just got to keep working hard in the gym,” Molina added. “Konawaena basketball. Put in the extra work. Extra hours.”