State D-I girls basketball: Iolani’s toughness, poise crucial in beating Konawaena for repeat

HONOLULU — The ‘Iolani Raiders are generally positionless, but their status is on a throne.

‘Iolani withstood everything the Konawaena dynasty brought to battle. Even after losing a 14-point lead, trailing 33-28 in the third quarter, the Raiders never wilted. They just grew stronger. The skill is across the roster. The savvy is, as well. The power, though, generates from sisters Lily Wahinekapu and Jovi Lefotu, who combined for 42 points, 10 rebounds and five steals as ‘Iolani made it back-to-back state titles with a thrilling 55-46 win over Konawaena on Saturday night at Blaisdell Arena.

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In typical fashion, Raider defenders were all over the floor, challenging passes on the perimeter and in the post. Reserve Alexsandra Huntimer came up with a tip by lunging airborne during the third quarter, preventing high-scoring Caiyle Kaupu from getting another touch.

‘Iolani finished the season 25-2, losing only to Mater Dei (63-57) and Maryknoll (55-51). They had to overcome a major rally by Konawaena. It wasn’t perfection, but against a Konawaena team worthy of a title, the Raiders were quite close.

“We lost our early lead, but great teams are going to make a run. We survived it, still went into the half with a lead. We took their best punch in the mouth and were still standing,” coach Dean Young said. “It’s the toughness to just keep battling. They didn’t care they were down five. There was no panic. We sat them down, we’re fine, just stay patient. Work together, get good shots. Work together as a team, get stops. It takes a special group to do that.”

Wahinekapu, a junior, finished with 20 points, four rebounds and five steals. Jovi Lefotu, a sophomore, had 22 points, six boards, and she sank 8-for-9 at the foul line in the final quarter.

“We knew that their game plan was going to be similar to preseason, but I knew they would come out with more fire. We did a really good job with Caiyle and Kaliana (Salazar-Harrell), and we could’ve done better, but we got the win,” Wahinekapu said. “I feel really good. Really good.”

‘Iolani’s Lily Wahinekapu was named the most outstanding player in Division I after finishing with 20 points, five steals and four rebounds in a win over Konawaena to give the Raiders a second consecutive state title. Photo by Darryl Oumi/Special to the Star-Advertiser.

Konawaena trailed 18-4, but scrapped back into the game with 10 second-quarter points by Kaupu and a couple of long-range bombs by sophomore Kayla Pak.

“Second quarter, I wanted to change our press, but I didn’t. That was my mistake,” Young said. “They got a little too comfortable breaking our press and we broke down defensively. We weren’t closing out on the shooters. We weren’t jump switching on the ball screens.”

The first time the Wildcats edged back in, ‘Iolani clung to a 21-20 lead. Then Wahinekapu answered with a pull-up jumper and a 3, and the Raiders had a 26-24 lead at the break.

The Wildcats vaulted to a 33-28 lead behind consecutive corner 3s by freshman Braelyn Kauhi with 5:51 left in the third quarter, but it was all Raiders after that. Wahinekapu scored on a pass from Alexis Huntimer. Then the classic ‘Iolani bucket: a steal by Kyra Tanabe, lead pass to Lefotu, who found Wahinekapu for another layup. After Wahinekapu sank two free throws with 4.6 seconds left the third, the Raiders led 36-35, capping an 8-2 run.

Just when Konawaena sophomore Kaliana Salazar-Harrell began to heat up — her second 3-pointer tied the game at 38 — ‘Iolani’s consistent attack began to pay off. Lefotu scored on an and-1 drive, and then hit the next eight free-throw attempts. It was Alexis Huntimer who swished 10-for-10 from the foul line in the final 4 minutes in the semifinals. This time Lefotu was the answer, and with foul shots by Huntimer and Wahinekapu, the Raiders were 12-for-14 from the charity stripe in the final quarter.

Ball game.

‘Iolani players and Young didn’t exactly relish the tough ILH schedule — four Top 10 teams playing each other four times — but there was consensus about the result.

“That was brutal. It probably made us tougher because every game was a grind. We were losing twice to Maryknoll late in games, came back to win,” Young noted.

One of those four games, Maryknoll beat ‘Iolani.

“We’ve been in tight situations. We’ve been down late. We’ve had to face pressure, fouling, making free throws at the end of the game to win it. That’s the ILH. The ILH was so tough this year,” Young said.

“Repetitive and competitive,” he added. “This year, the season throughout was harder.”

Alexis Huntimer returned from a cut above her left eye in the final minutes of ‘Iolani’s semifinal win over Waiakea. She got it glued up later by a doctor, and played in the final as if nothing happened.

“Playing the same teams over and over was hard. Even the teams we played since are good,” she said. “Last year, it was less competitive.”

Young and his staff have always embraced uptempo basketball, but with this group, there has been a depth of defensive understanding that is nuanced, complex and embraced.

“This team is special. We had a special year. We had a terrific preseason. We had a great Classic, we almost beat Mater Dei. We had an unbelievable trip to Japan. Some good basketball up there, too. Then we came home and took care of business,” Young said.

‘Iolani loses Kylie Yung, a master defender who hit a big 3 in the title game, to graduation. The rest of the roster returns next season. Most are returnees from last season, when they went 23-6. That’s a combined 48-8 over two seasons.

“I know that these girls are going to work hard. They’re going to play ball in the offseason. They’ve got great work ethic. I just want them all take another step up individually,” Young said. “Someone is going to put together a team that’s going to challenge us. I’m expecting it.”

They won’t stop with the free throws. They were 17-for-20 at the foul line against Konawaena.

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“During the season, we try to make 10 makes a day,” Yung said.

“I shoot in my driveway until I beat my sister,” Huntimer said of sister Alexandra. “We shoot until we’re tired.”

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