UHH women’s basketball preview: Despite huge hole in post, Vuls say improved teamwork can fill void

  • The UH-Hilo women’s basketball team’s seven returning players are, from left, top: Bree Olson, Malia Lee, Mikayla Tablit, Jenna Waki, Kim Schmelz; bottom: Sara Shimizu, Mandi Kawaha.

Let’s not avoid the elephant in the room.

Or, to be more precise, the big dog who’s no longer in the room for UH-Hilo’s women’s basketball team.

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Allie Navarette still is providing a sweet offensive presence as a double-double waiting to happen. She’s still smooth in the post and a cinch to find her way to the free-throw line and shoot a high percentage. The senior center is doing this all at Denver’s Metro State, where the Vulcans’ best all-time player transferred after three record-setting seasons, telling the Tribune-Herald that “treatment from teammates that only got worse,” prompted the move. Specifically, she blamed “bullying” from “local players.”

Some of her former teammates talk about the shocking transfer, while others prefer not to. Several Vulcans were unhappy with how their program was depicted in the story detailing Navarette’s claims, and in rallying together the consensus is the ordeal may just make the team stronger.

“I think the whole situation brought us closer together in the sense that we all came together and we were able to talk about it,” senior Kim Schmelz said.

Yes, UHH has a big void in the middle, but senior Malia Lee said improved team chemistry can help make up for that.

“It’s definitely different not having a post presence, but as far as team bonding, I feel like we play more as a team,” she said. “I think we would have played well with her if she was more of a team-oriented player. I didn’t think she gave a lot of credit to her teammates, so I feel like playing more of a team game makes everyone better.”

Navarette didn’t name any specific local players, so Hilo High alum Mandi Kawaha, a slender 5-foot-2 junior guard, is left to wonder.

“Whatever she said, it wasn’t true,” Kawaha said. “I’m 5-2, do I look like I’m a bully? No. No.

“I really think this helped us come closer.”

With Navarette flourishing on the court at Metro State and the Vulcans primed to hit the court, Kawaha may have had a final word of sorts.

‘Interchangeable’

Forget the guard, forward, center labels — trying to pin down certain players’ set positions is a fool’s errand this season.

Prompted before practice to describe Jenna Waki’s role, coach David Kaneshiro turned to the 5-6 sophomore.

“Jenna, are you a wing or forward today?” Kaneshiro said.

After a moment of thought, Waki said, “I’ll be whatever you need me to be.”

“Good answer,” Kaneshiro said.

In a sense, that’s true for everyone on a roster that Kaneshiro thinks is loaded with “interchangeable parts,” because players are comfortable and versatile enough to play on the perimeter.

“The way we play, everyone is going to handle the ball quite a bit,” he said. “They may not dribble the ball up the court, but they are going to have to pass and catch and make good decisions.

“Everyone’s got to be skilled enough and smart enough to execute with the balls in their hands.”

That holds true for two of the tallest players on the team, 5-11 junior Bree Olson, a redshirt who is one a seven returnees, and the 5-10 Lee.

The traditional point guards are Kawaha, Mikayla Tablit (5-5) and true freshman Mindy Kawaha (5-2) — Mandi’s younger sister — with Sara Shimizu (5-2), Schmelz (5-8) and Waki more apt to stay off the ball until the Vulcans get into their offense.

“We try to help them play to their strengths and do what they do best,” Kaneshiro said. “Generally, we’ve been a man-to-man defensive team, and I don’t think we’ll be too different than in year’s past. Our quickness will help us stay in front of the ball and control the dribbler.”

One advantage Kaneshiro has this season is experience. Schmelz, Lee and Shimizu are each entering at least their fourth seasons in the program, while Mandi Kawaha and Tablit are beginning Year 3. The familiarity in Kaneshiro’s system has helped players pick up concepts faster on the fly.

Of course, there’s no substitute for height, and Kaneshiro said a lot of the frontline newcomers he recruited are out with injuries.

“Rebounding is a point of emphasis,” he said. “We all need to rebound, we all need to block out, rebound as team.”

Lack of size was definitely a hindrance in 71-54 exhibition loss to Hawaii in December, as UHH was outscored in the paint 46-12 and outrebounded 56-20. Though the Vulcans won’t see the Rainbow Wahine again this season, they will see Hawaii Pacific, perhaps an even better team, six times this season.

That’s when the Vulcans’ guard-heavy lineup could come in handy. The Sharks, the top-ranked team in Division II West Region with a win against UH-Manoa under their belt, play as many as four or five guards at a time. The pick to win the Pacific West Conference for a fourth consecutive year after going 29-1 last season, three HPU guards made the seven-team all-PacWest team.

UHH is 1-22 all-time against the Sharks, so on paper it will be a much fairer fight when the Vuls and Chaminade play six times. UHH leads that series 13-8 and was picked to finish ninth in the PacWest, one spot above the Silverswords.

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Schmelz knows games aren’t played on paper.

“I really think we can beat everyone in this conference,” she said. “(HPU is) a really good team. I think if we play up to our ability that we can give them a run for their money.”

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