Open Mic
Starting backcourt helps Saint Francis stay in stride

Last season's Saint Francis girls basketball team can be described with one word — big.

With a starting lineup that featured 6-foot senior Olivia Vaeatangitau, 5-foot-10 Misiona Ribeiro, 5-foot-8 Skye Ah Yat and 6-foot-1 freshman reserve Mata Sagapolutele, the Saints were able to win their first nine Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division II contests before falling to eventual state champ Mid-Pacific.

Saint Francis had a distinct size advantage over the Owls, whose tallest player was 5-foot-8 freshman Paige Fahrni, but struggled against Mid-Pacific's full-court press defense and half-court trap. With junior combo guard Kaimi Kalei as the Saints' only capable ball-handler, the Owls forced Saint Francis into 26 turnovers in a 43-37 win.

But this season is different.

Instead of relying on their bigs to carry the load — like it did a season ago — Saint Francis has gone to a guard-heavy lineup with the additions of Kealani Neves and Nani Santos.

The Saints' new identity was on full display last Saturday when Neves, Santos and Kalei all finished in double figures in a 64-32 win over University Lab. The victory also helped Saint Francis continue its winning ways as it improved to 11-0 and 3-0 in league play.

"This year, since we have better ball-handlers and scorers, we go with three guards and two bigs, so we can mix it up," said Saint Francis coach Chris Hoe. "It's a lot harder for the other teams to defend when we have more ball handlers."

Saint Francis' Kealani Neves drives the ball down the court after a University Lab turnover.

Neves — who moved from Provo, Utah over the summer — was the Saints’ leading scorer Saturday, scoring a season-high 23 points on 50 percent shooting.

While the Neves family made the move to Hawaii during the school year, Neves stayed behind with older sister Sierra to help the Timpview Thunderbirds reach the Utah 4A state girls basketball semifinals.

Neves admitted that the transition was difficult, but credited the Saints with helping her assimilate to a new team.

“The coaches have been really supportive, as well as the rest of the team,” she said. “It’s just a good environment to be in.”

Neves earned All-Valley Team honors as a sophomore using her quickness to score around the rim, but it was her outside shooting that torched the Jr. Bows. The 5-foot-6 junior knocked down multiple jumpers coming off screens as defenders sagged back to defend the paint.

“That’s kind of our set (and) the way we work,” said Neves. “Obviously we have a lot of our dumps to our bigs every other game, (but the defense) just happened to be sticking underneath. I owe it to (the bigs). They setup a good play for me.”

Senior guard Nani Santos puts up a runner in the lane in the second half against University Lab.

Santos is also another transfer for the Saints, but she does have some familiarity with the team as she attended Saint Francis as a freshman. She spent the last two years in San Francisco and last played for St. Patrick-St. Vincent (Vallejo, Calif.), where she helped lead the Bruins to their first playoff win in four years

Santos missed her first five shots against University Lab, but remained aggressive and finished with 12 points while going 4-for-4 from the foul line.

“Nani started off slow, but once she gets going, she’s tough to guard,” Hoe said of Santos, who is averaging 17.7 points per game in league play.

With Neves and Santos on the team to help bring the ball up the floor, Kalei is able to exert more energy on the defensive end to help trap opposing ball-handlers. She recorded three steals as the Saints’ forced University Lab into 23 turnovers in their Saturday win.

“This was one of her better defensive games,” Hoe said on Kalei’s performance. “Defense is key for us to help create offense.”

Saint Francis forward Misiona Ribeiro goes in for a layup against the Jr. Bows in the first half.

While the three guards give the Saints a new look, Saint Francis can still pound it inside if they need to with Ribeiro and Ah Yat coming off the bench. Ribeiro had a solid game against the Jr. Bows, chipping in eight points with five rebounds and two blocks.

“They’ve got the complete package this year,” said University Lab coach Kenny Kitamura.

With Mid-Pacific now in Division I, the Saints’ early success and No. 7 ranking in this week’s Hawaiian Electric Power Rankings makes them the odds-on-favorite to win the D2 state title this season.

Reach Michael Lasquero at [email protected].



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