By KIM BAXTER
Special to Stephens Media
HONOLULU — As the Honokaa girls basketball team walked through the postgame handshake line with McKinley after the teams’ opening-round game in the Division II HHSAA State Basketball Championships, the Dragons looked like they had endured a prize fight for the previous 32 minutes at the Kalani High School Gym.
Freshman guard Kizzah Maltezo limped with a bare left foot covered in ice after rolling it in the final 90 seconds of the game. Junior guard Shemika Frazier limped with a bare right foot covered in ice after rolling it in the final minute of the third quarter. Senior forward Yvonne Daniels sported a massive ice pack on her right shoulder after falling to the floor in the final minute. And sophomore guard Shayla Ignacio took a pop to the face in the first half and earned a bloody nose (though no foul call), which she stopped with a wad of cotton shoved up her nostril.
Honokaa may have taken some punishment, especially from McKinley’s bruising center Taisha Thomas, who finished with a game-high 20 points. But the Dragons pulled out a gritty 58-48 victory that was much closer than the final score indicated. Honokaa (8-3) advances to the Division II quarterfinals where it will play third-ranked Hawaii Baptist (10-0) on Wednesday. Tipoff is 7 p.m. at Kalani High School.
Whether the Dragons, who reached the quarterfinals last year only to lose to No. 4 Kauai 43-23, can recover in time will be the key to advancing in the 12-team Division II state tournament.
“We got beaten up,” said Honokaa coach James Lukzen. “Hopefully we can heal good. But they’ve got a lot of heart, this team.”
Honokaa was tested early as Thomas powered her way throughout the post early in the first half. She finished with 15 first-half points as the Tigers, the Oahu Interscholastic Association’s third team in the Division II bracket, surged to a 30-25 halftime lead. Her dominance, coupled with Honokaa’s sloppy ballhandling — the team committed 14 first-half turnovers — had the Dragons upset in the halftime locker room.
“We just hated the feeling of losing because we wanted it so badly,” said junior center Hunter Liftee, who was assigned to stop Thomas in the paint.
In the second half, Honokaa adjusted its defense on Thomas, applied more ball pressure to the guard feeding the big center and limited her effectiveness. She scored just five second-half points.
“I did it for the team,” said Liftee, who added she hasn’t guarded any Big Island players as skilled and big as Thomas. “The whole team was counting on me.”
Yet the Dragons clung to a three-point lead going into the final stanza. That’s when Kamehameha-Hawaii transfer Keana Kaohimaunu showed her experience and leadership. The senior guard exploded for 10 straight points in a 2-minute span to push the lead to double-digits, which Honokaa would never relinquish.
Kaohimaunu finished with a team-high 16 points. Maltezo (13 points) and Liftee (11 points) were the other Dragons in double figures.
“I was waiting,” Lukzen said. “We can play whenever we want. … I was just waiting for them to step up and they did again.”