Big Island college report: For Hilo High grad Alexis Pana, it’s the best of times

  • Central Washington photo Alexis Pana, left and a 2014 Hilo High grad, thrived during her junior season at Central Washington, where Aliyah Pana played as a fifth-year senior.

Alexis Pana had the time of her life at Central Washington, where she was an All-GNAC first-team pick and played with her sister Aliyah Pana, who was in her last year of eligibility and served as a blanket of comfort.

Aliyah’s road was a long-traveled one. The 2014 Hilo graduate redshirted at UHH, then transferred to Ocean County College in New Jersey. She stayed in the cold for two years before joining the Wildcats last season.

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She was the team manager for a year, got the hoops itch and made the squad as a fifth-year senior. The Pana sisters were teammates again, and Alexis blossomed into a better version of herself during her BIIF days.

Alexis, a 5-foot-9 junior guard, was coached by her dad Ben Pana and trained as an all-around force: a ball-handler, who could hit the 3-pointer, dribble-penetrate, and dish or drain a pull-up jumper and defend the perimeter as a bulldog.

Her achievements in the GNAC, part of the NCAA Division II West Region, are the stuff that make parents (Ben and April Pana ) proud: GNAC All-American, unanimous first-team all-conference with 13.9 points and a conference-best 4.8 assists per game.

The Wildcats (18-11) lost to Alaska Anchorage in the GNAC semifinals 72-50 in March. Hannah Wandersee, a 6-foot-2 senior center, enjoyed a picnic in the paint and scored 21 points on 10 of 18 shooting.

Alexis played all 40 minutes and scored six points on 2 of 9 shooting. Aliyah came off the bench, logged nine minutes and scored three points.

Azusa Pacific, from the PacWest, defeated Alaska Anchorage 65-63 to win the West Regional and qualify for the NCAA tournament, a summary point for Alexis as she reviewed the season in her head.

“Our team really stepped up this year. We were a lot tougher than last year,” she said. “We shared the love on the offensive end and improved on defense, going to fourth in the conference for defense. I’m so happy to be a part of a team that always plays for something bigger than themselves. We show up every day and get our work done. It’s fun to be a part of a team that treats each other like family.”

Alexis always had family around with her sister. What’s better than going through college with your lifetime teammate?

“It was fun. She was like my second mom,” Alexis said. “She took care of me all the time and cooked me food. I’m sad she’s leaving me next year. Aliyah is going to graduate with a degree in math and wants to become a sports statistician, preferably for a basketball team.”

It’s not just on the court, but it’s off the court, too, where Alexis is making the most of her college experience.

“Because Central is so small (11,500 enrollment), I’ve been able to build so many friendships with so many people,” she said. “I’m able to become familiar with the locals, too. Also, I’ve met many people from Hawaii and been able to connect and build relationships with other Hawaiians who understand how hard it is to not be surrounded by warmth and salt water anymore. I can honestly say it’s a home away from home for me.”

Alexis, who’s studying graphic design, acknowledges that being a student-athlete is a full-time grind, and if she’s not at class then it’s court time. But back in January, she was able to make a weekend trip to Portland, where her best friend, Kizzah Maltezo, plays for Concordia.

The 2016 Honokaa graduate and the Pana sister had a reunion in the first round of the GNAC championships. The Wildcats eliminated the Cavaliers 68-65.

Alexis credited CWU coach Randi Richardson-Thornley for her development.

“My confidence as a player and person grew,” Alexis said. “Randi believed in me since the very first day. We’ve had long talks about my confidence being a huge part of the player I wanted to become and a big reason why I am successful is because of her dedication to me and the team.”

Alexis was fed comfort and confidence by her sister and coach and is looking at a bright future with the Wildcats, who return four starters, including their best all-all-around player in Pana.

“My goal is to continue to make memories and history with this team,” she said. “We have such an amazing group of girls and I’m excited and anxious for my senior year. We have a great group of girls coming in for next year as well. We have a lot of potential to have another good season.”

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Alexis Pana is having the time of her life in college, but home is where the heart is for her.

“I’m not sure what I want to do when I graduate yet,” she said. “I might stay up here for a year just because living expenses are so much cheaper than back home. But I want to, for sure, move back home.”

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