It was a wild Thursday when Keaau and Hilo pulled off huge BIIF basketball upsets over two-time defending champion Waiakea and runner-up Konawaena, respectively, confirming the optimist’s slogan: Anybody can beat anybody.
That’s particularly true for Division I after the Cougars stunned the Warriors 47-44 at their gym, and the Vikings jumped over a banana peel and watched the Wildcats slip 68-57 at Ellison Onizuka Gym.
Last season, the Cougars were the No. 4 seed in the BIIF semifinals and lost to Konawaena 63-53 while the Vikings didn’t qualify for the four-team postseason.
Kamehameha (4-0) continues to rule the Division I standings, and a new order is behind with Keaau (4-1), Hilo (3-1), Konawaena (2-2), Waiakea (2-2), and Kealakehe (1-2).
Keaau is powered by the ball-handling brilliance of senior point guard Rico Handy, who’s an ace at taking his defender off the dribble, jump-stopping and tossing in a layup or dishing to an open shooter.
In most games, Handy carries the offense with roughly 20 points and routinely gets to the free throw line about a dozen times, but he also burns a lot of energy in half-court sets.
Against Waiakea’s 1-3-1 zone, Handy had an off-night with 14 points, including only one 3-pointer, and going 3 of 4 from the free throw line. He still got his share of easy buckets with four layups, displaying his fundamentally sound footwork and athleticism.
It’s sort of a pick your poison against Handy. Go man and Handy will zip past his defender. Rely on a zone and he’ll blitz through gaps. Throw a trap and his vision is so sharp he’ll fire a pass to an open shooter.
In an encouraging sign, someone stepped up to help shoulder the load. Junior forward Patrick Mears scored 15 points on four 3-pointers when teammates found him all alone on the perimeter. Those long balls stretched Waiakea’s zone, where lanes opened a bit for Handy’s rim attacks.
One other major key was Keaau’s tempo. The Cougars are not a running ballclub. They work best when it’s a low-scoring affair and their opponent can’t fast-break them to death.
“We worked hard on our zone and man-to-man defense,” Keaau coach Jun Pagala said. “We also worked on our zone plays, being more patient, ball movement, better shots and executing our plays.”
Both teams didn’t cash in at the free throw line. Waiakea went 8 of 14 while Keaau was 6 of 11. In the fourth quarter when the kitchen is hot, the visitors made 1 of 3 while the Cougars buried 4 of 4 free throws.
After William Soares made 1 of 2 free throws to slice Keaau’s lead to 45-44 with 45 seconds left, the Cougars had a turnover. That gave the Warriors more than enough time to take a game-winning shot.
However, Mears had the play of the game when he jumped on a sloppy, cross-court pass, stole the ball and streaked to the rim. He was fouled but converted both free throws with 4.8 seconds remaining.
Pagala is a stickler for his team shooting 70 percent from the free throw line but weren’t close at 55 percent. In the fourth period, Handy and Mears, the two best foul shooters, each went a perfect 2 of 2 from the line.
Besides their clutch free throws, the Cougars played tough turnover defense. Every time they had a giveaway, the defense buckled down. Keaau outscored Waiakea 12-5 off free gifts, a significant category victory.
Each team shot 38 percent from the field, struggling to hit jump shots or from 3-point range. Waiakea made 2 of 13 from long range while Keaau was 6 of 19.
When the shots didn’t fall, the Cougars never went to sleep on defense. They either raced back on defense or looked to capitalize on a mistake.
Pardon the pun but Keaau stole one when Mears picked Waiakea’s pocket and closed out a pivotal victory that highlighted the league’s anybody-can-beat-anybody parity.
The Vikings have enough horses to run up and down the court with the Wildcats, who usually turn to their defense to spark their offense. But the visitors used their best weapon in Kealakekua: old-fashioned teamwork.
“We played totally unselfish team ball,” Hilo coach Bruce Ferreira said. “Most games, we’ve been inconsistent and have low points and not score. But we were consistent throughout.
“We communicated, executed on offense and defense, and there was a willingness from each player to do their part. All year, we’ve shot 50 to 60 percent on free throws. We hit 8 of 8 at the end of the game.”
Kekaukahi Alameda and Liko Medeiros scored 18 points each, and Jojo Balagot added 16 points for the Vikings, who put an emphasis on transition defense.
“We’ve stressed all year on getting back on defense. In previous games, we’ve given up easy buckets. One thing we can control is pure hustle. We beat our opponent back on defense.”
Hauoli Akau scored 20 points while Seau Amor added 14 points for the Wildcats.
Alameda, a sophomore point guard, has a well-rounded arsenal. He’s got steady ball-handling, a fast-improving long-range shot, and uncanny court vision. Medeiros, a 5-foot-9 senior, is essentially Hilo’s toughest little giant. He’s versatile enough to score from the paint and perimeter.
When someone else contributes, that’s when the Vikings can go toe to toe if an opponent wants to turn the basketball court into a track meet. Balagot is a senior guard and speed burner. But Ferreira always wants two-way players, who play defense first and then add to the offense.
“Kekaukahi played a smart, heady game, solid defense and attacked the basket with a vengeance,” Ferreira said. “Liko played solid like he always does. He scored our first 13 points, got key rebounds and hit big 3s. He played strong defense on their bigs.
“Jojo had a terrific game. He’s got a small frame, but he gave up his body and played strong defense. He got five steals and converted a few layups, got fouled and knocked down free throws, and he hit big 3s.”
Next up for Hilo is a home date against Kamehameha on Tuesday at the Vikings Gym, a difficult matchup because of Nalu Kahapea, who’s become the league’s most dominant force.
The 6-5 senior forward has expanded his offensive toolbox. He fires 3-pointers or parks in the low post and shoots jump hooks. Now, he’s got counters off that shot. If he’s overplayed on a hedge, Kahapea will drop-step and drive baseline.
If a double team crowds him, Kahapea has developed a deadly fadeaway, a dagger he used to sink the game-winner in a 52-50 win over Waiakea two days before Christmas.
“I’ve watched Kamehameha play five times,” Ferreira said. “They’re head and shoulders above everyone. They’re consistent, well-coached, disciplined and play smart and hustle. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.
“To knock them off, you have to be at the top of your game, and they have to be a little off their game. But anybody can beat anybody this year in Division I. You could go 5-0 or 0-5 against the others in Division I very easily.”
Kohala 49, St. Joseph 29: Jeffrey Francisco 12 points in Kapaau as the Cowboys (2-1) spoiled the Cardinals opener in a game that could hold significance in the Division II playoff race.
Ruka Suda paced St. Joe with 10 points.
Kohala led 20-9 at halftime and increased its advantage to 39-18 after three quarters.
Last season, the team tied for fourth during the regular season, and Kohala won a play-in game to reach BIIFs.
Hawaii Prep 51, Parker 25: In the renewal of a Waimea crosstown rivalry, KJ Walker led a balanced scoring effort with 11 points as Ka Makani overcame an early charge from the short-handed Bulls.
Point guard Conner Brown helped stake host Parker (0-3) to 15-11 lead before he had to exit with an injury, and HPA (1-1) ran away from there, holding the Bulls to just six points in the second and third quarters to go ahead 43-17 entering the fourth.
Jonah Hurney, Michael Hughes and Matija Vitorovic scored nine points apiece for HPA.
Honokaa 69, Laupahoehoe 18: The Dragons went on the road and ran their record to 2-1, behind Kamuela Spencer-Herring (14 points) and Sheltyn Carvalho (10). Laupahoehoe fell to 0-3.