HHSAA girls basketball: Kamehameha’s perseverance highlights BIIF’s prominence

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL/Honolulu Star-Advertiser
    Kamehameha’s Dominique Pacheco, third from left, battles for possession of the ball with St. Francis’ Mata Sagapolutele, second from left, and Kaimi Kalei on Saturday night during the Warriors 41-32 victory in the state D-II final. Also pictured is the Warriors’ Hera Salmeron.

HONOLULU – In the year 2018, Kamehameha confirmed a widespread belief that there is and always has been a commitment in the BIIF to excellence in girls basketball.

The Warriors put their seal of triumph into the history books by pounding top-seeded St. Francis 41-32 on Saturday night in the Division II final of the HHSAA girls basketball state championships at Blaisdell Center. Along with Konawaena’s four-peat of the D-I state title, the BIIF laid claim to both crowns. In fact, with Waiakea in the D-I semifinal and Honokaa in the D-II semi – eachn finished fourth – the BIIF had half of the spots in the final four of each bracket. On Saturday night, Kamehameha (16-4 overall) got a superlative performance from Saydee Aganus, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds while directing the offense.

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It was a blessing rather than a curse that the Warriors took on their share of good D-I teams in preseason and the regular season. They played in the Kaiser Invitational, beating host Kaiser, 2017 D-II state champion Mid-Pacific and Kamehameha-Kapalama II. During BIIF play, Kamehameha went 6-4 prior to the D-II playoffs. While three of the losses were to top-10 level teams — Waiakea, Hilo and Konawaena — it was the first loss in league play that sent chills down their spines. Honokaa edged Kamehameha 29-28 on Dec. 29.

From that point on, nothing was certain for the Warriors. Urgency under adversity became their new normal. The result: championships at the BIIF and state level. KS-Hawaii won their fourth state title, and their first since 2013.

“Honokaa was surprising. They’re a good team. They pushed us. That was a wake-up call for us,” Aganus said.

Sophomore point guard Dominique Pacheco wouldn’t trade the bumpy road for any other. That long 50-mile bus ride back home from Honokaa to campus gave the Warriors a lot to think about.

“We were getting frustrated, but we came together. We started just coming together. We just wanted it as a team,” Pacheco said.

Kamehameha edged Honokaa 32-29 in the BIIF D-II title game. Those iron-sharpening losses forged greater strength in each team. By state championship night, St. Francis — which lost two players in December (transferred) — wasn’t able to withstand the loss of Mata Sagapolutele during the state final.

“Credit to St. Francis because they’ve got great athletes, as well,” Kamehameha coach Weston Willard said. “They’re active as a team. Those were two solid teams on the floor, but our team with five seniors, I feel like they have the experience. They were able to put that on the floor. The effort and the heart, four years of work for these girls on the varsity, it really came to fruition today and I’m really proud of these girls.”

Kamehameha didn’t know what to expect from the Saints until the day before the title game.

“We didn’t actually get a look at St. Francis until (Friday) night. We didn’t get a look at their film. We didn’t plan,” Willard said. “We’re kind of the next-game kind of team, so we looked at it (Friday night), we made a few adjustments, but we told the seniors, ‘You’ve just got to play basketball.’ We have great basketball players. We have complete trust in them. They were able to run what they wanted to run. The coaching staff was pretty much out of it. They won the game. They ran the game.

The Saints, unbeaten in 25 contests (nonconference, ILH and state tourney), lost Sagapolutele in the first half when she aggravated a knee injury suffered in Friday’s semifinal round. Still, they kept it close.

Aganus was a maker of big plays. Her steal and layup opened the lead to 20-13 just before halftime. She already had 10 points and eight boards by the break. Aganus didn’t attempt a shot and had three turnovers in the third quarter as the resident Saints rallied for a 25-23 lead.

The only lead St. Francis enjoyed lasted exactly 51 seconds. Warriors guard Jordyn Mantz splashed a corner 3 with 42 seconds left in the third, and the Warriors never trailed again. That sparked a 13-4 run. St. Francis shot 2-for-12 in the final quarter as Kamehameha did enough at the foul line in the final 1:35. The Warriors shot 6-for-10 from the charity stripe to deprive the Saints of what could have been their first state crown in girls basketball.

“We have a hard time coming out in the third quarter because we play so hard in the first half,” Willard said. “We don’t go that deep. All season, third quarter has been a problem. We came back at the end of the third quarter to take the lead. It’s about composure. The girls weren’t rattled. They knew they were going to make a run. We have a ton of respect for St. Francis. They hit a couple of shots and we said, it’s time for us to make our run. I’m so proud of this team.”

Aganus didn’t seem a bit fatigued by the end of the night. As a team, the Warriors’ brute strength was balanced by high hoops IQ and excellent conditioning. Oh, and the skills required to close wins out at the foul line. Aganus, McKenzie Kalawaia and Pacheco came through at the stripe. Aganus shot 7-for-10 at the line in the final quarter.

“It’s not a coincidence. That’s four years of hard work in the gym,” Willard said. “She’s always there for workouts. That’s a byproduct of hard work.”

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The other byproduct? Kamehameha has ended St. Francis’ title hopes in each of the last four years.

“It might be. I don’t recall off-hand,” Willard said. “We love St. Francis. We have so much respect for their program. It’s great competition out there.”