HHSAA D-I girls basketball: Konawaena’s drama, destiny and 4-peat

  • Cindy Ellen Russell/Honolulu Star-Advertiser
    The Konawaena Wildcats huddled after winning the HHSAA Division I girls basketball championship.

HONOLULU — Epic?

This was rematch squared. A continuing saga of Shakespearean-level drama and destiny. In the end, the talented, deep, top-seeded Maryknoll Spartans still couldn’t topple the big green Wildcats at the top of the mountain. Konawaena’s 47-32 win for a state-title four-peat Saturday night was a demonstration in death by a thousand paper cuts. The Wildcats executed Coach Bobbie Awa’s game plan to the nth degree of success. By the end, it was as if Konawaena (26-2 including nonconference games) extended its lead — once it was theirs for the taking in the third quarter — by one inch at a time, nothing more and nothing less.

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Not once, not twice, but three times as of this season, the Spartans reached the championship game of the HHSAA girls basketball state championships. Konawaena’s dynasty paid little heed. Even after losing Chanelle Molina to graduation in 2016, Konawaena managed to beat Maryknoll in the 2017 state final to repeat.

Maryknoll (28-3 overall including nonconference games) was on the verge of something monumental, taking a cohesive, hard-working group of freshmen and winning the ILH title in ‘14, then every year since. Four ILH crowns in four seasons. But as a senior-heavy group — 11 in all — there was no way they would be denied of at least one title. Especially with Konawaena down to its last Molina sister, Cherilyn.

Especially after Maryknoll throttled the Wildcats 56-37 early this season.

Especially since the tall, long and rangy Spartans had beaten almost every foe on the schedule, local and mainland, by hearty margins. For Konawaena, which also lost (at home) to longtime MIL powerhouse Lahainaluna in nonconference play, it didn’t matter how many titles or how many trophies were stacking up back home in Ellison Onizuka Memorial Gymnasium in Kealakekua.

All the Wildcats knew was that they were seeded second, given little to no chance to beat the Spartans, let alone compete with them. Especially with this starting lineup (all heights estimated since they’re not listed on the roster):

Cherilyn Molina, 5-foot-4, Sr. Reigning all-State player of the year

• Mikayla Tablit, 5-5, Sr., returning all-state selection

• Tanniya Uchida, 5-2, Jr.

• Kawena Kaohimaunu, 5-5, Sr. Transfer from Honokaa.•Caiyle Kaupu, 5-9, So.

Even with a tough-nosed rebounder and defender in Mo’o Mo’o Fautanu, at 5-7 she was much smaller than most centers. She proved her value in a quarterfinal win over Moanalua, stepping in for Kaupu (foul trouble) and grabbing four offensive rebounds in one quarter.

The puzzle that puts Konawaena and Maryknoll together for this one night is almost a perfect storm, but for which team? Maryknoll hadn’t faced a team as small as Konawaena since beating the Wildcats three months earlier, and the Wildcats hadn’t seen a team as long and athletic as Maryknoll in a long time: 6-1 center Isabella Cravens, 5-10 wing Kamalu Kamakawiwo’ole, 5-8 forward Moe Notoa, 5-8 wing Kodee Viena, 5-8 wing Chayse Milne — the litany of talented wings and posts could seemingly go on forever — and a point guard in Rhianne Omori with equal parts skill, verve and experience.

Konawaena evolved, as Awa dictates every year. The Wildcats often put in a new package on offense, keeping good defenders on the move for 30, 60, even 90 seconds as they deliberately space the floor, use screens on and off ball, and when the options fail, they start over. That’s how a great team can get past Maryknoll. The best Konawaena defense is its offense: In all, the Wildcats took just 26 field-goal attempts, using a highly effective attack to take 32 free throws.

Going into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats were 8-for-10 at the foul line and Maryknoll was 2-for-4. Instead of breaking the game plan, they stuck to it, spreading the court, playing keep away, drawing contact, taking fouls and wound up 24-for-32 at the charity stripe. Maryknoll finished 5-for-8.

The senior guards: evolution

Molina amassed 26 rebounds in three state-tourney games. Tablit, who had 10 boards in the semifinal win over Lahainaluna, added seven against Maryknoll. For a third night in a row, the Wildcats outrebounded their foe (30-26), and even more so, their timing was unimaginable. Case in point: with a 37-25 lead, Uchida misses the second FT, but Tablit sneaks in for the offensive rebound and another chunk of momentum is taken from the Spartans with 2:07 remaining.

Tablit and Molina combined to make 15 of 20 free-throw attempts in the final quarter. Ice-cold clutch.

“Mikayla, senior leadership, did you not see senior leadership out there? That was Mikayla. She had her head on straight the whole night. I’m so proud of her,” Awa said. “She led this team.”

Molina, who will soon suit up for Washington State, was consistent and explosive.

“Cherilyn led by example, scoring. Both girls did. Both girls got to the line. Both girls protected the ball. Both girls rebounded. They played hard,” Awa said.

Tenacious defensively. Poised offensively. Tablit and Molina may be the best combination backcourt ever in Hawaii, but they think strictly in terms of team rewards. That meant breaking the mold of what most guards do. Rebounding. Defending bigs. Constantly attacking the paint to draw fouls.

It wasn’t just the sheer hustle of Tablit and Molina. Former standout point guard and current co-head coach Dawnyelle Awa occasionally reminds the guards to crash the offensive boards every chance they get. That mentality led to 34 combined offensive rebounds by the Wildcats in two earlier tourney wins.

Maryknoll seemed to be on the verge of taking command inside and out after one half. Konawaena wasn’t going to sneak away with 16 or 18 offensive rebounds in this game, but Awa had a bigger concern on the other board.

“That was our problem in the first half. They got the offensive rebounds and we talked about boxing out and getting boards,” Bobbie Awa said.

The corner 3

There aren’t many coaches who add a wrinkle in mid-stream, but that’s what Awa did early in the third quarter as the Wildcats rallied. She told Kaupu to get to the 3-point line, square up and shoot a 3. With Cravens staying in the paint, Kaupu was wide open with the splash, tying the game at 22. Moments later, Molina’s free throw gave Konawaena the lead, and it seemed like this would be a see-saw battle to the end.

Instead, Maryknoll struggled in the second half, shooting 2-for-20 from the floor. Konawaena, which showed glimpses of matchup zone earlier in the week, stuck with man defense.

“Auntie Bobbie said to get out to the line and set my feet,” the sophomore said.

“We spread the floor to get the big on her. She (Isabella Cravens) has to play her honest or Caiyle can shoot the ball, so yeah, I told her to step out. Sometimes she falls in love with (the 3), but this is the night we told her to take that,” Awa said.

“She has confidence,” Molina said.

“Which is good,” Tablit added. “Some people don’t have confidence when they shoot the ball. For a big, especially, she has confidence. When she has the ball, she can drive or shoot, so opponents have to play her somehow.”

Awa was ecstatic after the game. Her team executed the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts game plan flawlessly. Seeing Kaupu surprise Maryknoll with her first 3-point attempt of the game was classic Awa. The longtime coach may not change a lot of things from season to season, but when the adjustments are fundamental, Awa is willing to play her cards within the element of surprise.

That shift-in-stride mentality also carried over once Konawaena gained the lead. The ‘Cats spread the floor and narrowly escaped steals by the Spartans many times. For the most part, though, they were able to make the right decisions with the ball, particularly after some penetration into the elbow area, before kicking the ball back to the top.

The gunner and the slasher

Kawena Kaohimaunu arrived from Honokaa in the offseason, a perfect fit as a 3-point bomber and capable ballhandler. She was also a tough defender and rebounder. Her ability to contribute in multiple ways was another reason the Wildcats were able to succeed with a slower tempo, relying on a shorter rotation without losing steam in the late going.

They also did it with key underclassmen. Kaupu didn’t have big statistics, but she stayed out of foul trouble despite two early fouls and contested everything in the paint. Unlike last year’s state final, when Uchida hit two key 3-pointers, this time it was her decision-making and overall ballhandling that were, for a second state tournament in a row, huge factors.

“She had such a great season. People underestimate her because she’s so tiny, but she’s so crafty. She’s smart, she can shoot the ball, she can get to the rack, she sees the floor so well,” Awa said.

Just about every one of their nine state titles — the current streak of four in a row matches what Kamehameha-Kapalama did 1990-93 — has involved timely contributions from underclassmen. And it all began a quarter-century ago with a group of cousins, 6 and 7 years old, playing for a club created by their auntie and uncle, part of a uprising of club hoops to play in leagues at the then-new Kekuaokalani Gymnasium.

Awa didn’t start out with a plan to become the most successful girls basketball coach in the state. But out of those humble beginnings and simple aspirations, there still were very few believers in 2018. Not with Maryknoll playing the role of Goliath perfectly.

Crystal balling

Every year, a new challenge. It’s been the same since the first championship group that featured Jessica Hanato (now a longtime assistant coach), Jazzmin Awa-Williams and Nancy Hoist. There were heartbreaks along the way — two title-game losses in overtime — and some down years when they won the BIIF, but didn’t get as far at states.

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Next season’s team has surefire elite players in Kaupu and Uchida, who missed some time this season due to injury. The Wildcats also return some key role players, but unless those returnees develop this offseason, the lineup in the 2018-19 season might have more in common with the late-aughts team that featured Hina Kimitete and Mana Hopkins, two future college players who saw their state title dream end in the quarterfinal round.

The entire state has a multitude of young talent, which should make next season as surprisingly appealing as this one was. Even if the cupboard might seem bare with the graduation of Molina, Tablit and Kaohimaunu, history now tells us that the Wildcats will probably end up in the final picture. It may be, once again, a matter of destiny.