KEALAKEKUA — Midway through the first quarter of the BIIF Division I championship against Konawaena, Waiakea’s Keeli-Jade Smith got open off a screen, stepped back and hit a 3-pointer.
There was no celebration — not even a fist pump — and the junior standout and her teammates quickly fell back into their half court defense, ready for more.
It was just business as usual for the Warriors in a game that was anything but.
Behind a team-high 13 points from Smith and a complete effort from junior guard Kelsie Imai, Waiakea did what no team has been able to do in over a decade — beat Konawaena for a BIIF title.
The Warriors survived a fourth quarter 3-point barrage from the Wildcats and took control late for a 58-48 victory, securing the program’s first BIIF title since 2008.
“I’m excited for the girls. Just to be able to compete with a program like Konawaena is something special,” Waiakea head coach Brandon Kauhi said. “We set the bar high and have had some ups and downs. But we worked hard to have them peaking at the right time. There is a ton of potential on this team.”
Kauhi took over the program three years ago and has seen steady progression within his squad, which features a core group of juniors who will be back next year to defend their title.
“I felt like we were ready for this,” Imai said. “After we lost last year, I told the girls I didn’t want to lose in another BIIF championship.”
She made sure that didn’t happen against the Wildcats.
Imai finished with a packed stat line that included 7 points, 6 assists, 2 rebounds and 2 steals, as well as a bevy of other feats that didn’t show up on the box score.
As her coach put it, Imai is the glue that keeps that game plan together.
“She handles pressure of being a leader,” Kauhi said. “She’s a coach on the court and has the passion that helps us win games.”
All good things eventually have to come to an end, but that’s not to say Konawaena is going anywhere as both a BIIF and state power. The Wildcats’ roster features all underclassmen, including six freshmen, most who played key roles.
“It’s a tough loss but I have been through this before way back when, so I know how the girls feel,” said Konawaena head coach Bobbie Awa. “I think I can handle a loss better than they can. I don’t know if that is good or not, but I can coach them through it. It was definitely tough for them but they played hard and never gave up.”
Kaliana Salazar Harrell led the Wildcats with 14 points. She hit 4 of 6 of her shots from behind the arc. Caiyle Kaupu added 10 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Both teams have qualified for the HHSAA tournament, which begins on Feb. 4 with the first round of the tournament. Konawaena is expected to host its opening game against an opponent that is still to be announced.
Waiakea has earned a seeded berth and a bye to the quarterfinals.
Last year, Waiakea finished fourth at the state tournament, falling to Maryknoll in the semifinals, the team Konawaena would go on to beat in the state title game for their fourth consecutive title.
“I feel like we can give it a good run,” Kauhi said.
Waiakea’s last title came more than a decade ago and also came against the Wildcats. The victory stood as the last league loss for Konawaena for a decade-plus until Waiakea was able to finally breakthrough for a 54-25 win over the Wildcats on Jan. 10.
It ended a streak of 124 consecutive league wins by Konawaena — the longest era of dominance the league has ever seen.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Imai said. “We ended the streak and got the title too.”
Just as they did in their semifinal against Hilo, the Wildcats started out hot, riding a loud Kealakekua crowd to a 5-1 lead. That was all but expected by the Warriors.
“We were planning for it,” Kauhi said. “We felt if we could weather that early storm and build a small lead, we would be OK.”
Imai echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“Kona Town is always a tough place to play,” Imai said. “The people come out and support their team. We just had to maintain our composure. Only we could stop ourselves.”
The first time the teams met, Konawaena was 0-21 from 3-point range. The Wildcats did better on that on their first possession, with Kailana Salazar Harrell hitting from deep. The Wildcats’ second try nearly went in too, but it rimmed out after going halfway down.
“We played nearly a perfect game last time and they did not shoot well,” Kauhi said. “We knew it would be different this time.”
While the Wildcats had the early momentum, the Warriors ability to put points up in bunches with quick transition buckets off turnovers and well-orchestrated offense did not keep them behind for long. Waiakea closed the quarter on a 14-3 run to take an early edge.
Waiakea built on its lead in the second quarter, but the 3-ball continued to be in play from the Wildcats. Salazar Harrell hit another as part of an 8-point first half, and freshman Kayla Pak nailed a buzzer-beater from deep to give Konawaena a little boost heading into the break, albeit still down 27-18.
The game turned into a track meet in the third quarter when Konawaena decided to pick up Waiakea full court and go for a trap after the inbound pass. But playing an active brand of basketball all year, there’s little doubt that the Warriors were the most in shape team in the BIIF.
Once the ball escaped the pressure, Waiakea ball handlers Imai and Tayvia Cabatbat were game to run. The teams traded blows at a hectic pace, but a buzzer-beater by Smith maintained the Warriors’ 9-point cushion heading into the final eight minutes.
Konawaena opened the fourth quarter with a trio of 3-point shots, getting as close as three points, turning up the volume in the gym to deafening. However, the Wildcat rally took a hit when Salazar Harrell, the team’s 3-point ace, left with her fifth foul just minutes into the fourth.
For Waiakea, it was Cabatbat — a transfer from Konawaena — who came up clutch down the stretch. With Konawaena still within striking distance, Cabatbat scored five straight points in the fourth quarter. Up 11, an old fashioned 3-point play by Jazelle Dorser all but sealed the deal for the Warriors.
“Probably the best game of the year for Tayvia — by far,” Kauhi said. “She has freak athleticism and we want to see her build off of this.”