By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The feeling of satisfaction was all over Kenan Gaspar’s face. The Konawaena senior guard had a blue-collar performance to remember. And his teammates followed along, providing similar energy and adding a defensive effort that was equally impressive.
Gaspar scored 29 points and Konawaena outscored Kamehameha by 10 in the third quarter to pull away with a 68-55 victory in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I championship on Saturday night before 2,300 fans at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, winning its first league title since 2008.
Konawaena (12-0) and Kamehameha (10-5) both have spots in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state tournament, which will be held Wednesday through Saturday on Oahu. It’s the Warriors’ third straight appearance.
Jonah Bredeson added 14 points, Brenton Shropshire had eight and Brandon Awa chipped in six points for the Wildcats, who shot 53 percent (10 of 19) in the second half and made 13 of 20 free throws; they hit 3 of 3 in the first half.
“This feels better than Friday night,” Gaspar said. “It took us four years to get this championship. Every year, we’d come close but lose to Hilo or Kamehameha. This year, we finally beat Kamehameha in the championship.”
In the semifinals, with 6-foot-7 big man Shropshire protecting the rim, the Wildcats extended their defense and gambled for steals. When a driving lane opened, Waiakea, especially its little guys, attacked the rim. But they ultimately fell short, losing 59-58 on Friday because Kona tightened its defense down the stretch, applying blanket pressure and scoring off turnovers or in transition.
It was the same thing in the championship, one night later. The only difference was Konawaena dropped a defensive hammer early rather than late, outscoring Kamehameha 21-11 in the third quarter.
“We never let down and kept our intensity up,” Gaspar said. “We kept pushing the pace. Everybody plays as a team and we have heart.”
After falling to Hilo 68-64 in the semifinals last year, the Wildcats returned with a renewed focus, going unbeaten during the regular season, and believing things wouldn’t be the same old same old as years past.
“I felt last year was our year and this year was our year,” said Bredeson, a junior forward. “We changed little things this year. We practiced harder and we had the mindset to come in more focused and ready to go. In that third quarter, I saw everybody pumped up more. Everybody believed and we blocked out on rebounds. We did all the things we needed to do to win this game.”
The Warriors trailed 34-32 at halftime, but couldn’t find their shooting stroke in the second half. They shot just 33 percent (9 of 27), including 0 of 11 from 3-point range. They often settled for jump shots instead of driving for layups; Kamehameha made only 7 of 11 free throws for the game.
Laa Manliguis scored 23 points, Shaun Kagawa 14, Ilikai Calip 10 and Micah Carter eight points for Kamehameha, which won the last two BIIF titles, but returned only one starter from last year in Kagawa.
“It’s a huge sense of relief. I’m so happy for the boys,” Kona coach Donny Awa said. “I felt last year should have been our year. We got a lot off our shoulders getting the state berth on Friday night.”
After co-starring in a long-distance shooting contest with the Warriors in the first half, the Wildcats switched strategies, attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line, closing the third quarter on an 11-4 run with the last five points from the free throw line. Gasper scored nine points during that stretch in different ways — on a 3-pointer, two free throws, a putback and a layup in transition.
“Kenan is a big-time player and he stepped up for us,” Awa said. “We try to be more of a transition team and when they pressured us that opened things up for our offense. We tend to settle for 3-pointers too quickly.
“On the West side, teams pack it in and play zone against us. We give our team the OK to shoot the 3, but not to fall in love with it. We’ve got a big man (Shropshire) inside and guys who can attack the basket.”
In the fourth quarter, the Wildcats fed Shropshire the ball in the paint and he scored six of his eight points, the last a putback that pushed the lead to 64-53 with 2:30 remaining.
By then Gaspar was done with his scoring. He had two free throws earlier; he converted 6 of 8 from the charity stripe.
“I just took whatever was open,” Gaspar said. “If I was open, I would take it. If not, I would be patient and run our plays to get a better shot.”
Meanwhile, the first half featured a furious back-and-forth tempo. Each team ran the floor at every opportunity and fired up 3-pointers. Kona hit 5 of 12 from long distance while Kamehameha went 5 of 14.
Gaspar scored 16 points in the first half, including a pair of 3-pointers. Bredeson followed with 10 points, all of it to start the second quarter, making 4 of 4 shots.
However, Manliguis was equally productive in the first half. The junior guard had 14 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Then the second half was right around the corner, and as Bredeson noted, Kona with its hammering defense was focused and ready to go.
Kamehameha 17 15 11 12 — 55
Konawaena 15 19 21 13 — 68