After all this time, I finally got to see the team that beat Lahainaluna.
When the week began, the Campbell Sabers were 7-0 in the OIA West, a team ranked No. 8 in the Star-Advertiser Girls Basketball Top 10. Built on solid leadership from top to bottom, with a fourth-year court general in Gieani Balino. Tonight, the Sabers were coming off a 37-34 loss to Leilehua, facing the unbeaten Mililani Trojans with first place at stake. A Campbell win would set up a showdown with Radford next week for first place. It would guarantee Campbell first or second place and an outright first-round bye in the OIA Division I playoffs.
But for the second time in three days, the Sabers were caged. Mililani took it to the home team on senior night, 51-40, leaving onlookers like me wondering if we’ve seen the best of what Campbell has to offer. Let’s look at the tsunami ride that was Campbell’s early season.
>> After a 44-38 to a very good Hawaii Baptist team (that had been on the cusp of the Top 10 before finally breaking through this week), Campbell reeled off wins over Roosevelt, Kamehameha, Castle, Damien, Lahainaluna and Honokaa before losing to defending state champion Konawaena. That’s six wins in a row. The upset win over MIL powerhouse Lahainaluna, I learned tonight, was a unique situation. Lunas coach Todd Rickard substituted freely, rotating in his varsity and JV players routinely. Campbell had a 16-point lead with less than 2 minutes left. Rickard re-entered his varsity starters. The final margin was 43-39.
>> Campbell opened the regular season after returning from the Big Island and edged a potentially good Kapolei team 55-54, then wiped out Pearl City, Waialua and Aiea. Then came close wins over Waianae and Nanakuli. Then came the losses this week to Leilehua (37-34) and Mililani. In the ILH, iron sharpens iron. Losses make teams stronger or they simply fall by the wayside. It is brutal and it is what makes the ILH so alluring. For Campbell, these two losses in OIA West play will make them stronger, or they’ll simply fade away.
My gut feeling is that even though they don’t have a player over 5 feet, 6 inches, the Sabers will get better. They had open looks even against a tough Mililani man defense and shot just 3-for-18 from the arc. If they make just three more treys, that’s a standard 33 percent (6-for-18), and an 11-point loss is a one-possession game.
In addition, the Sabers weren’t content to settle for 3s. They pounded the ball inside and got to the line via tough Orepa Fatu (13 points, seven rebounds) and Balino. The senior struggled (3-for-14 from the field against one of the league’s top defenders, Kalena Gibson), but still shot 6-for-6 at the foul line in the fourth quarter and finished with 14 points and five boards.
Again, the Sabers were just a few treys away from changing this game. What makes it tough is that they struggle on the board. Mililani dominated the glass 36-20. So Campbell has to execute and has to hit shots.
What Campbell also did well in bursts was force turnovers. They didn’t go all-out with fullcourt pressure, but they did force Mililani into 14 giveaways, and that’s even with a talented, tough point guard handling the ball. Dahlis Sablay was sensational at times and finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. She tired a bit in the third quarter, which is perfectly understandable given her big role, but she finished strong.
So Mililani is a perfect 9-0, clinched first place in the West, and is playing so well despite a 3-7 preseason. They have overcome the departure of a longtime head coach, and interim head coach Francis Dagan has this team operating smoothly with high-low post passing action, just the right balance of aggressiveness and court vision offensively, and a rugged man defense.
Campbell? They could use a 6-2 center like Mililani’s Cheyenne Ardona (six points, 11 boards) and a long-limbed defender like Gibson. Now that I’ve seen them, it’s a wonder that they got this far with a roster of hard-nosed, fearless guards. But most teams hit a wall at some point of the season and need time to get their legs back. It’s not an excuse. It just happens, especially with the weight of academic demands.
“For us, I knew going into this part of the season that we’d have an extra tough time,” Sabers coach Summer Aona said. “33 (Gibson) did a great job on Gieani. Our kids had a lot of stuff going on today. Orepa is overcoming a lot of adversity. I’m very proud of our girls.”
If the shock of two losses after winning seven league games in a row is real, it didn’t show tonight. The Sabers celebrated their seniors with gusto, with a choreographed music show. With joy.
“Gieani is someone on the court I can always trust,” Aona said on the microphone as the senior celebration neared a close.
It just doesn’t seem like the Sabers will be content to let two defeats derail their season.
“I want us to be able to get third place (in the West),” Aona said with an eye on Tuesday’s battle with Radford. “We want to make it to the state tournament. We haven’t been there since 2008.”
That was the year the late Nathan Macadangdang guided the Sabers to a D-II state crown.
For Mililani, the struggle and the growth have been monumental. In many ways, it starts with Sablay.
“She has matured since preseason,” Dagan said. “She kinds of wears her emotions on her sleeve, so she’s learned how to communicate with her teammates in different ways.”
The sophomore agreed.
“During preseason, we had a rough road. We had to find ourselves and our identity,” Sablay said. “We’ve had a lot of team bondings and a lot of fun.”
The numbers tell a simple tale. Mililani was too big inside, shot a high percentage from the field (48 percent) and at the line (76 percent). Campbell, ice cold from the 19-foot, 9-inch arc. But in the wild West, both teams have endured enough to know what they do well, and neither team has pushed the panic button for any reason.
It was just nice to see that poise in action, win or lose.