Women’s basketball: Kamehameha grad Gabriel gleeful to be back in game with Vuls

For someone who had to stay after practice to put in a little extra work Saturday, UH-Hilo’s Makamae Gabriel was almost having too much fun.

There’s a good reason. Basketball is a booming again for Gabriel, and she’s smiling like it’s 2015.

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Her BIIF playing career at Kamehameha, a state Division II dynasty, those were the glory days.

“That was the best time of my life, it was so fun the teams that we had,” she said. “We were just so close, it was always more than just basketball. I feel like that’s why we got so far, our chemistry was amazing. On and off the court, it was great.”

Before this season, Gabriel’s last made her mark by scoring 26 points to lead the Warriors to third place in the state tournament. As a sophomore, she started on a state-title winning team and Gabriel helped the Warriors get back to the final a year later.

After an ill-fated season at a junior college and a two-year layoff that included a coaching stint at Kamehameha, Gabriel is shaking off the rust and “putting in the work,” coach Dave Kaneshiro said. “We’re lucky to have her.”

Gabriel’s free throws could use some polish – she and assistant Donn Kansako worked on that Saturday after her teammates had filed out – and conditioning was always going to be ongoing process, but the glory days seemed to have returned.

“This probably may be one of the best times of my life,” she said. “I’m just trying to enjoy every little second that I have.”

The 21-year-old Gabriel, a 5-foot-7 junior forward, can think in terms of minutes.

She earning major ones and is the second-leading rebounder for the Vulcans (2-3, 0-3 PacWest), who are fresh off taking exams and a two-week break, and they will shoehorn three games into a span of about 50 hours or before the NCAA-mandated holiday break kicks in. UHH hosts Holy Names (1-9, 1-4) at 5 p.m. Monday before dipping into nonconference play against Saint Martin’s (3-5) and No. 15 Alaska-Anchorage (7-1) on Wednesday.

Games on back-to-back-to-back nights might seem familiar to Gabriel, who grew used to such a grind at state tournaments with Kamehameha, where she also grew used to winning.

“At Kamehameha, we never really faced challenges like this, being in (BIIF Division II),” she said. “With this (college) challenge being in (NCAA Division II) with this team and being 0-3, some teams would say, ‘This sucks, we’re done.’

“My teammates are amazing, saying we’re coming back, this is nothing.”

Gabriel thought her playing days were done after she left Everett C.C. in Washington after one season. However, a stint as Kamehameha’s junior varsity coach last season made her realize that playing in women’s leagues wasn’t going enough to fulfill her competitive desire.

That’s when all her years of attending Vulcans summer camp paid off. She had a prior relationship with Kaneshiro, who also had followed her BIIF career and welcomed her with open arms.

But, when practice started, would her teammates initially take her seriously?

“I was scared, honestly, and being a walkon is even harder,” Gabriel said. “Thinking these girls are better than me, I’ve been off a long time, but I’ve always had that mindset that if I work hard, I’ll get there.

“I really didn’t expect my teammates to be so welcoming. All the girls are nice and uplifting. It wasn’t even a point where I thought they doubted me. More like self-doubt. I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

Before the Vulcans’ exhibition game against Hawaii in early Nov. 1, Kaneshiro told Gabriel her fastest way to see playing time was to embrace a supporting tole and become a forward who does all the little things.

That wasn’t exactly her role the last time she had played at Stan Sheriff Center, for Kamehameha in 2015.

“At first, I didn’t like that role, that was never my role. Nope,” she said. “I went home and I was like, ‘If that’s what my team needs, I’ll be that.”

The shorthanded Vulcans, who go nine deep, need all the help they can find, and Gabriel is playing just under a half each game, averaging 4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds.

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Gabriel, a double major in administration of justice and psychology with a minor in women’s studies, gives UHH a scoring option on the low block, and she’s impressed Kaneshiro with her passing, even has she works on her stamina and adjusts to the intensity of Division II.

“I love it,” she said. “I don’t expect to play more than I am. Whatever minutes I can get to help my team.”

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