HONOLULU – After six long years, the title returns to Rocky Hill.
Punahou, ranked No. 2 in the ScoringLive/OC16 Girls Basketball Power Rankings, claimed their eleventh state title in school history with a win over top-seeded Lahainaluna, 60-48, in the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Division I Girls Basketball Champions at the Neal Blaisdell Center Saturday night.
“It’s probably one of the most amazing feelings in the world,” Punahou senior Hailey Motooka said about the win. “No amount of words can describe this. After all the hard work we put into practice and preseason, this is everything we worked for.”
Motooka is one of the four seniors that were in the team when the Buffanblu last played in the state title game in 2011, losing to eventual champ Konawaena, 49-45.
“It’s huge. I don’t think those four seniors are going to realize it till tomorrow, the accomplishments that they made tonight,” said first-year Punahou coach Kevin Velasco. Fittingly enough, Velasco was an assistant on that 2011 squad, before helping out with Kamehameha the past two years.
“It’s all for the kids, they did a phenomenal job as seniors. We’re going to miss them – but at least we’re going to send them out on a high note, feeling real good not only about themselves, but the team as well.”
Leading the way for the Buffanblu was sophomore Tyra Moe, who scored a game-high 19 points. Moe was a dominant force inside, converting on 9-of-10 shot attempts. She also added seven rebounds and three blocks for good measure
“I just wanted to do it all for them because they inspire me so much,” Moe said on her performance. “They’re going to be there for me no matter what so I did it all for them.”
The Buffanblu earn their spot in the title game with a 53-48 victory over Mililani the night before. It was a costly one though, as they lost reserve guard Astra Kidani to an anterior cruciate ligament in the win.
“I think the big thing was we told the girls when Astra went down, ‘that’s your sister who went down, so it’s time for somebody else to step up’” said Velasco. “That’s all we ask of them, if somebody goes down you have to step up in their place.”
Stepping up in Kidani’s absence was Vae Malufau, who scored 11 points off the bench. She also did a little bit of everything, registering five rebounds, an assist, a steal and a blocked shot.
“I think two games ago, she just figured out that (she) can play, (she) can make a difference and her confidence just shot up,” Velasco said on Malufau. “She’s young, but her game tonight, what she did defensively and on the offensive boards was just phenomenal.”
A big part of the Buffanblu’s win can be attributed to their huge second quarter performance. Punahou exploded for 26 points in the period, shooting at an outstanding 75 percent from the field (9-for-12). The largest lead the Buffanblu had in the game was 22 with 3:30 remaining in the first half.
“It was just our chemistry was awesome,” Moe said on their big second quarter. “We just started to say, ‘we’re going to take this win tonight.’”
Lahainaluna responded with a 13-5 run to end the quarter, and also keep them in the game. Punahou led 39-25 at the break.
A Buffanblu victory seemed inevitable once play resumed – but that all changed when Punahou’s Kamaile Kandiah came down awkward on a layup attempt near the start of the third. Kandiah, the Buffanblu’s primary ball handler, left the game at the 6:09 mark of the third quarter and would remain out for the remainder of the game.
Kandiah’s presence would be missed tremendously, especially with the Lunas’ turning up their defense. This forced Punahou to commit more turnovers in the second half (12), compared to the first (10).
“They never went quit, that’s how they are. It’s unfortunate we didn’t start that way to being with,” Lahainaluna coach Todd Rickard said on their improved defense in the second half.
To counteract this, Punahou went to a four big lineup consisting of Moe, Malefau, and seniors Keau Fey and Samantah Alakai. Motooka was the lone guard in this adjusted lineup.
“That’s how the game went,” Velasco said on the lineup change. “We had to do it because we lost Kamaile, our ball handler, and we needed to find something else, somebody big that can come to the ball.”
The bigger lineup affected the Lunas’ ability to defend as they were whistled for more fouls than Punahou (21 to 12).
“It was huge, we knew that we dominated (them) in size, height wise. We had to get the ball into our bigs (and) I think the guards did a pretty good job at that,” Moe said on their size advantage.
This also helped Punahou win the rebounding battle, 42-26, and also prevent second chance opportunities. Even though Punahou had trouble protecting the ball, Lahainaluna had trouble scoring against this bigger lineup.
“We went to a zone (defense) and used our four bigs (to) see if our length can slow them down,” said Velasco.
Still the Lunas would not go down quietly, even able to cut the lead down to six in the fourth quarter, thanks to back-to-back triples from Aloha Salem. Punahou then threw it away on the ensuing possession, making this a completely different ball game with 5:11 remaining in regulation. Keleah-Aiko Koloi later split a pair at the line to cut the lead down to five, 51-46 at the 3:44 mark.
The Lunas’ comeback attempt was valiant, but ultimately it was a little too late. Punahou made the necessary free throws needed to close out the game and Lahainaluna fell, 60-48.
“This is probably one of the best things of our lives, cause we did it as a team” Moe said after the game. “Its just love. We love each other so much, we do it for our teammates.”
Koloi led the Lunas in the loss, scoring 11 points with eight rebounds.
“They showed effort, showed determination. They got (the lead down) to six or whatever it was. They just ran out of gas,” Rickard said about his teams’ late game effort. “Credit to Punahou, they did an excellent job. They played hard and they’re champions.”