As a rising power, Waiakea waited and waited from the outside looking in as Konawaena reigned in Division I, and Hilo tagged along in second place.
But things changed drastically in the crosstown rivalry between Hilo and the Warriors, who have often come up with the short end of the stick, losing in heart-breaking ways.
The Warriors made clutch plays, played tenacious defense and outlasted the Vikings 55-49 in the BIIF Division I semifinals on Wednesday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
In the other semifinal, No. 1 seed Konawaena crushed No. 4 Keaau 76-25.
Waiakea (9-2) plays Konawaena (11-0) for the BIIF title at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Hilo Civic. The Warriors last won the title in 2008 when sisters Kirsty and Kami Imai starred for the team.
Kelsie Imai, their youngest sister, is the centerpiece of the team, and she had a clutch performance with 13 points, nine rebounds, and one crowd-pleasing block. She also sank 7 of 9 free throws, including 3 of 4 for Waiakea’s final points.
Standout freshman Jazelle Dorser had a double-double with 15 points on 5 of 10 shooting and 11 rebounds, Zaelynn Lui-Cabinatan added 12 points, and Keighsha Walker had eight points for the Warriors, who converted 45 percent (18 of 40) on field goals, including 2 of 7 from long range.
Jamila Collins-Ebanez scored 13 points, splashing three long balls, Mandi Kawaha had 12 points (three 3-pointers), and Tatiana Rideout added 11 points for the Vikings, who shot 34 percent (17 of 50), including 8 of 27 from 3-point distance.
Hilo didn’t do itself any favors with just 7 of 16 free throws; Waiakea went 17 of 27 from the line.
Both teams finished with 12 turnovers, but the Warriors survived despite four in the fourth period; the Viks had only one giveaway.
In the end, Hilo couldn’t hit enough deep shots, despite a furious comeback in the fourth quarter with three consecutive 3-pointers. Kawaha drilled a 3-ball, and Collins-Ebanez swished two in a row, the latter with 2:02 to go, but the long ball shooting dried up from there.
After Collins-Ebanez was fouled on a 3-point attempt and buried 2 of 3 from the free throw line, Kawaha fouled out with 48.4 seconds left in the game. Hilo then had three clean 3-ball looks, but none went down.
Imai later hammered home 3 of 4 free throws. Earlier in the fourth quarter, she got a block, which caused the crowd to explode, and fed Lui-Cabinatan for a layup and a 51-38 lead with under six minutes to play.
Last year, Hilo eliminated Waiakea 40-39 in the BIIF semifinals.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Imai said. “It feels so great. After we lost last year, the freshmen told each other that we don’t want to feel that way again.”
In an energized first half, Waiakea did all the little things better to take a 33-27 lead into halftime.
The Warriors forced more turnovers, 10-6, had better free throw shooting (10 of 16 to Hilo’s 6 of 15), and hustled down the court for easy buckets.
Waiakea had three transition layups when Hilo was beat down the court and had great bench scoring help. Walker had eight points, including a Kevin McHale up-and-under move for a 26-20 lead with 2:25 left in the second period. (Google, Kevin McHale favorite moves.)
Walker immediately followed with a 3-pointer, her second of the first half. And Lui-Cabinatan was a matchup nightmare with her speed, defense and fast-break prowess. The floor-burning sophomore had 10 points, dropping in three layups.
Hilo ran into foul trouble. Kawaha picked up her third foul with 4:46 left in the second period while Mele Vaka got hit with her third foul with 1:24 remaining.
Kawaha scored nine points in the first half, hitting a pair of 3-pointers. The Viks went 4 of 10 from long range, and Collins-Ebanez drained a pair.
In the third quarter, Kawaha gave the crowd a reason to roar when she faked a defender out of her shoes and passed to Vaka, who scored. One play later, Mandi Kawaha came off a high screen and passed to her sister Mindy Kawaha, who swished a 3-ball to slice Waiakea’s lead to 35-34 with four minutes left.
The Warriors immediately turned to their best scoring option: Imai, who scored eight of her team’s last 10 points to head into the fourth quarter with a 47-38 lead.
The athletic sophomore point guard kept taking her defender off the dribble, scored layups or got to the free throw line. Imai capped her scoring party with an off-the-dribble jump shot right before the buzzer.
Waiakea took a 47-38 lead in the final eight minutes and a shot to crash the BIIF championship. The Wildcats have pocked the last nine titles while Hilo has been the runner-up the last five years.
Suddenly, it’s the Warriors’ turn to change the narrative.
Waiakea 13 20 14 8 — 55
Hilo 10 17 11 11 — 49
Konawaena 76, Keaau 25: The nine-time defending BIIF champion Wildcats rolled behind red-hot shooting. They buried 62 percent (33 of 53) from the floor. Mikayla Tablit had 18 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Cherilyn Molina added 15 points (6 of 12), Caiyle Kaupu (6 of 7) and Tanniya Uchida (5 of 6) had 13 points each.
Freshman Anela Gonsalves scored 13 points on 5 of 10 shooting for the Cougars (4-7), who lose seven seniors in Kaylee Marquess, Lovina Queja, Stecy Dingle, Hunter Muranaka, Kaumaka Sibayton, Crystalynn Respecio-Mercado, and Kyra Banasihan.
The Cougars shot just 20 percent (8 of 41) from the floor, including 7 of 15 from 3-point range, and hurt themselves with 24 turnovers.
The Wildcats did a nice job with ball-sharing and finished with 18 assists. Kawena Kaohimaunu, who had nine points, and Uchida dished out five assists each.
Game preview: In the regular season, Konawaena prevailed over Waiakea 38-35, grabbing key rebounds down the stretch.
Waiakea coach Brandon Kauhi’s game plan against Hilo was a simple one: work the ball inside the paint to Dorser and get the Viks into foul trouble.
However, the Wildcats are experts at playing tough defense without fouling. They also make the extra pass better than anyone, a reason for their last three state titles.
“We can’t stop that (ball-sharing),” Kauhi said. “We just have to minimize it and try to get them in foul trouble.
“It’s easy to coach our girls. The coaches open the gym, and they go to work. It’s huge for the coaching staff in our two years of the program.”
Work ethic is one thing, but it helps tremendously to have a gifted standout like Imai, who can impact the game in so many ways: scoring, rebounding and lifting teammates on her shoulders.
“In the third quarter, we told Kelsie to do what you do. She’s been clutch for us all year,” Kauhi said.
Keaau 0 6 9 10 — 25
Konawaena 22 23 14 16 — 76