KEAAU – Normally, Keaau is a one-man scoring operation with Rico Handy carrying the load, but he had a lot of help against physical Kealakehe.
Behind a balanced scoring attack and a pesky 2-3 zone defense, Keaau defeated Kealakehe 59-51 in its second BIIF Division I postseason play-in game on Monday night at the Cougars Gym.
In the BIIF semifinals, No. 4 seed Keaau (10-5) meets No. 1 Kamehameha (13-0) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
In the other semifinal, it’s two-time BIIF defending champion and No. 2 Waiakea (10-3) vs. No. 3 Konawaena (9-4) at 7:30 p.m.
The Cougars outlasted Hilo 48-40 in another play-in game on Sunday.
If they want to reach the HHSAA tournament for the first time since 2009, the Cougars need to upset the Warriors and claim the BIIF championship. They’ll need to pull out four straight wins. The Warriors already secured a state berth.
The season is over for the Waveriders (8-6), who beat the Cougars 48-43 during the regular season but struggled with their ball-handling in the rematch with 16 turnovers and closing gaps with their 1-2-2 zone.
When the zone didn’t swing over in time, Handy knocked down three triples and raced through seams for layups to finish with 13 points.
Patrick Mears scored 12 points while Isaiah Akana and Neth Nethon added 11 points each for the Cougars, who shot 45 percent (19 of 42) on field goals, including 6 of 14 from 3-point range.
Bryton Lewi sank three 3-pointers and raced to the rim for layups and 15 points while Lewko Lai and Anthony “Head” Trevino turned into the putback brothers and had 13 and 11 points, respectively, for the Waveriders, who converted 40 percent (19 of 47) from the floor, including 3 of 10 from beyond the arc.
“We held our composure and were patient on offense and located our shooters,” Keaau coach Jun Pagala said. “We had a hard time adjusting to their block outs and rebounding. They’ve got good post players.”
Kealakehe’s best offense was second-chance shots. The bigger Waveriders muscled Keaau under the boards and had far more points off putbacks, 12-2. They won’t have that luxury next season because Lai and Trevino are both seniors.
However, when it was time to make a play, the Cougars came up with clutch shots.
In the fourth quarter, Akana buried two 3-pointers in a row for a 50-44 lead with 4:17 left and never trailed again.
“We’ve been working on him, and he got his confidence back,” Pagala said.
Keaau kept the door open for a ’Riders comeback with free throw misses. The Cougars went 15 of 31 from the line, including 9 of 19 in the fourth period.
The Waveriders didn’t help themselves either with free points. They went just 9 of 17 from the line, including 3 of 4 in the final eight minutes.
Nethon not only gave Keaau an offensive boost but also provided solid post defense against Lai, who fouled out with 2:41 remaining, and Trevino.
The fourth quarter was a wild ride. Keaau had six turnovers while Keaau had four giveaways. Lewi hit two free throws to slice lead to 54-51 with 51.5 seconds to go.
But Kealakehe’s offense dried up, and the visitors had to foul. The Cougars made 5 of 8 free throws down the stretch.
In the first half, Handy and Mears took turns carrying the offense. Mears found open spots in the zone and scored eight points while Handy swished three triples, including a 35-foot 3-pointer right before the first-quarter buzzer.
Lewi scored 10 points, hitting a pair of 3-balls, and the Waveriders closed with a 7-0 run on a pair of putbacks by Lai and Trevino, who scored right before the halftime buzzer, to take a 28-27 lead into the break.
Keaau now takes on Kamehameha, which features the league’s top big man in 6-foot-5 senior Nalu Kahapea, who scored 16 second-half points in a 51-45 win during the regular season.
“We have to play the same way, be patient and execute on offense,” Pagala said. “In our last two games, we’ve shown we can win any basketball game. It was a team effort for us.”
Kealakehe 11 17 12 11 — 51
Keaau 13 14 13 19 — 59