KEAAU — One of coach Jun Pagala’s goals is for his team to shoot better than 70 percent from the free throw line.
In his first two years, Keaau had a bad habit of missing from the charity stripe that cost the Cougars a spot in the four-team BIIF Division I playoffs.
Last year, the Cougars hit their free throws and secured a spot to the postseason, and that strength carried them to a 59-54 victory over Hawaii Prep in a BIIF free-throwing shooting contest on Thursday night at their gym.
All the drama was saved for the second half, starting from the third quarter when Keaau held a 21-point cushion that whittled to a three-point lead with under 3:24 remaining in the game.
The two great advantages for the Cougars (1-1) were Rico Handy’s scoring prowess and their accuracy from the free throw line. Handy scored 29 points, including 12 of 14 from the line, and his team hit 17 of 23 free throws (74 percent).
When Handy took a breather on the bench, he had scoring help with Patrick Mears and Branden Pagala, who each scored eight points for the Cougars, who hit 48 percent (20 of 42) from the field, including 2 of 8 from long distance.
Sophomore Javan Perez scored 16 points, and freshman KJ Walker added 15 points for the cold-shooting Division II Ka Makani (0-1), who converted 44 percent (15 of 34) from the floor, including 5 of 12 from 3-point range.
The visitors left a lot of points on the free throw line. They went just 19 of 30 or 63 percent.
In the first half, Handy scored 18 points, often driving to the hoop and tagging fouls on defenders. He went 7 of 8 from the line, and HPA’s defenders had trouble staying in front of him.
Both teams worked a lot on their half-court sets. There were no fastbreak layups. While Ka Makani had precision passes to the post and scored, the Cougars got the ball inside with Handy’s dribble-penetration.
And when Ka Makani shooters got fouled, they threw up bricks at the free throw line and made just 5 of 13 in the first half.
Matija Vitorovic, HPA’s top scoring threat, went scoreless in the first half. He hit his first basket, a 3-pointer, with 2:14 left in the third quarter. He finished with seven points and never found a rhythm.
The third quarter was a wild swing of scoring runs.
Keaau jumped on a 13-2 scoring spree and scored all of its baskets inside, except for Gabe Bergen’s 3-pointer, to grab a 49-28 lead with under three minutes in the third period. That 21-point cushion soon evaporated.
The Cougars went into a cold spell and watched HPA rip off a 12-0 run to close the third quarter. HPA trailed 49-40 heading into the final eight minutes.
In the fourth quarter, Keaau drilled 8 of 10 from the free throw line. Even better, the Cougs protected the ball and won the turnover battle. They had 10 giveaways, three fewer than HPA, and outscored the visitors 12-4 off free gifts.
“It was a good win for us,” Keaau coach Jun Pagala said. “We know our kids can play. We just need to close out games. When they hit 3-point shots, we got a little rattled, but the good thing is that we held our composure and didn’t panic.
“We eliminated our turnovers, and we made our goal of hitting more than 70 percent on free throws, and closed out the game.”
HPA 8 16 16 14 — 54
Keaau 13 21 15 10 — 59