Holiday Prep Classic: Waiakea and Hilo go to war against each other in playoff preview

When Hilo tried to trap Waiakea point guard Kelsie Imai, the 5-foot-6 sophomore floored it and raced to the basket time and again, showing an athleticism that makes it easy to score or set up others.

She didn’t always convert a layup but often did the next best thing in spacing the court and finding her mid-range shooters. Her fellow young Warriors knocked down enough shots and displayed their promising potential.


Waiakea outlasted the Vikings 39-34 at the Hilo High/Holiday Prep Classic on Friday night at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, where the two teams offered a preview to a likely clash in the BIIF Division I semifinals.

The bulk of Waiakea’s 12-player roster is filled with eight athletic freshmen and sophomores. The best of the bunch are Imai, 5-8 Keeli-Jade Smith, and 5-8 freshman Jazelle Dorser, who owns a soft touch in the paint.

The sophomores are old enough to remember last season when Hilo beat Waiakea 40-39 in the BIIF semifinals in a game that got away. The Warriors led 29-23 heading into the fourth quarter, and the lead was too slippery to hold.

Fast-forward and set the scene to movie revenge music.

All of the young Warriors played with intensity on defense, looked to furiously run the ball and saw a standout trio grow before their eyes.

Smith hit turnaround jumpers from the elbow and baseline for 12 points, Imai soared for 11 points, and Dorser splashed the nets for eight points for the Warriors, who shot 30 percent (14 of 47) from the field, including 1 of 10 from long range. Imai sank the only 3-pointer.

“That’s their strength, both of them (Smith and Dorser) from the elbow in,” Waiakea coach Brandon Kauhi said. “We want to get them the ball and take advantage of that.

“Kelsie is very athletic and can dribble around bigs who guard her. She’s been finishing away from the basket. We want her to finish in front of the rim.”

If the Warriors improve their free throw shooting — they went 9 of 16 — it’ll save Kauhi from getting a few gray hairs. The Vikings went 8 of 11 from the line.

Mele Vaka got fed in the post and scored 13 points, Tatiana Rideout had eight points, and Mandi Kawaha and Asia Castillo added six points each for Hilo, which buried just 25 percent (11 of 44) from the floor, including 2 of 17 from long range.

The Warriors applied relentless ball-pressure and clogged the paint on half-court defense to neutralize Kawaha’s dribble-penetration. When the 5-3 senior point guard scooted around the tall trees and dished the ball, her teammates often missed.

“Our main focus was Kawaha and to contest her shots and block out their bigs and limit their shot attempts,” Kauhi said. “This game was more about confidence, knowing we can compete with Hilo. We’ve got a lot of athleticism, and that makes it easier to score.”

When Vaka, a 5-10 senior took a breather, Hilo’s height was instantly depleted. It should be noted that 5-10 junior Samm Brewer, a transfer from Oregon, and 5-7 sophomore guard Jamila Collins-Ebanez didn’t play due to injuries.

Hilo hosts Waiakea in a BIIF showdown on Friday, Jan. 12 at the Vikings Gym. Unless nine-time, defending BIIF champion Konawaena suffers a major upset before then, the crosstown rivals will likely be playing for seeding and a mental edge and not the regular-season title, which includes a berth to the HHSAA tournament.

Brewer is a tough post defender and can power up shots from the blocks while Collins-Ebanez has the best-looking 3-point shot among the two teams. If both are back by next month, they’ll bring much-needed depth.

Hilo had 15 turnovers, and Waiakea had 13 giveaways. But the Warriors only had a 7-5 scoring edge off giveaways. Both teams had solid transition defense, hustling back to prevent easy layups.

Like any good sequel, the game boiled down to the fourth quarter, again.

Vaka scored on a putback for a 27-27 tie with 6:29 left. It was the first tie of the game. The Viks played catch-up the entire time; Waiakea’s largest lead was nine points, 27-18 in the third quarter.

Smith answered with a jump shot from the baseline and followed with a putback and was fouled. She drained the free throw for a 32-27 lead with 5:05 left. It was enough of a cushion to stiff-arm Hilo’s comeback attempt.

Both teams struggled to find a rhythm in half-court offense. Both also missed too many close-range looks.


There were other obvious things that also stood out.

Both teams went to war against each other, especially on the defensive end. And Waiakea’s athleticism never took a breather. The Warriors kept running and pressuring, putting their strengths to good use.

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