By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
For high school basketball coaches, the preseason is about growing pains, building team chemistry, and finding out your team’s strengths and weaknesses.
On Thursday night in the Blue Bracket semifinals of the Waiakea/Keaau Boys Preseason Basketball Tournament, Kealakehe’s Sam Kekuaokalani and Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Dave Huntington and Fred Wawmer got a heavy rush of coaches’ adrenalin as their teams battled in a competitive contest at the Waiakea Gym.
The Ka Makani, the defending Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II champions, controlled the first half and led 21-8 over the cold-shooting Waveriders. Then after outscoring Kealakehe 9-8 in the third quarter, it appeared HPA was on its way to a solid victory over its D-I opponent.
However, senior point guard Deion Utrera caught fire and sparked the Waveriders as they made a mad rush at the physical Ka Makani, slicing the HPA lead to 36-28 on Utrera’s 3-pointer with 4:52 left.
But just as quick as Utrera took over the Kealakehe offense, scoring seven points in the period, Ka Makani senior point guard Jovan Crnic stepped up and poured in 12 of his game-high 27 points to help HPA fight off the Waveriders 56-37. The guard from Serbia also had 10 rebounds and six assists in another well-rounded performance.
The frantic fourth period offered meaningful insight into both teams for their coaches.
For Kealakehe, it’s obvious that the talented Utrera will have to step up and lead the charge, with help from a solid nucleus, including beefy 6-foot-5 junior Malu Akiona, who can score inside or out and gives the Waveriders one of the top big men in the league. The roster also includes four football players off the school’s D-I championship squad and enough athletes to keep Kealakehe in the game against any BIIF opponent.
Utrera finished with 19 points against HPA while Akiona added eight.
“I saw some good things and some things that we need to get better at,” Kekuaokalani said. “It’s early in the preseason and we’re trying to build our team chemistry and get everybody playing together as a team. Deion will be a key for us. We need him to show leadership and do all the good things he can do for us on the basketball court.
“Malu is a big addition and he should really help us, and the football guys give us added toughness. They understand winning and what we need to do. We just need more experience playing together.”
For HPA, the 6-4 Crnic will score and run the offense with his keen vision in transition or halfcourt sets. But Huntington and Wawmer also have some nice contributing players as part of the puzzle while trying to defend their league title this season.
Junior guard Kalan Camero, one of the BIIF’s most improved players from a year ago, followed Crnic with 11 points on Thursday night. He’s a smart player who is gaining confidence in his perimeter shooting; he can defend and rebound; and he gives the Ka Makani on-court leadership when Crnic goes to the bench for a rest.
Husky seniors Kama DeSilva and Sefa Rocha-Tufaga provide HPA with strong inside play and defense, and both can score — with Rocha-Tufaga dangerous from 3-point range. Juniors Kellen Gillens, Kenji Stinson and Buck Thomas provide a nice blend with the other returning Ka Makani to solidify a strong unit.
“We’re seeing guys step up in their roles and become more confident,” Huntington said. “Kalan worked really hard on his game and it’s showing. We need him to be an every day player for us.”
Wawmer also liked what he saw against Kealakehe. Each time the Waveriders made a run, the Ka Makani responded.
“We’re trying to get everybody on the same page and playing to their strengths,” he said. “We just want to keep getting better and see our guys believe in our system. We need all of guys to contribute for us to be successful.”
The Blue bracket of the 14-team tournament is being played at the Waiakea High gym while the Red bracket is being held at the Keaau High gym.
In the other Blue bracket semifinal Thursday at Waiakea, Kalaheo edged Honokaa 44-43. In consolation action, Hilo defeated Waiakea 56-45 and Waiakea 2 downed St. Joseph 39-13.
In today’s Blue bracket final, it’s Kalaheo vs. HPA at 7:30 p.m. In earlier games, it’s Honokaa vs. Kealakehe at 6 p.m., Hilo vs. Waiakea 2 at 4:30 p.m. and St. Joseph vs. Waiakea at 3 p.m.
In the Red bracket at Keaau High Thursday, it was: Konawaena 57, Kohala 42; Kamehameha-Hawaii 71, Ka’u 30; Kalani 54, Keaau 53 OT; and Pahoa 68, Keaau 2 31.
In today’s Red bracket final at the Keaau High gym, it’s Konawaena vs. Kamehameha at 7:30 p.m. In earlier games, it’s Kohala vs. Ka’u at 6 p.m., Kalani vs. Pahoa at 4:30 p.m. and Keaau vs. Keaau 2 at 3 p.m.
The tournament wraps up Saturday with the eight teams in each bracket playing the opposite bracket finishers, Red 1 vs. Blue 1, Red 2 vs. Blue 2, and so on. Times and schedule will be finalized after today’s games at both sites.
HPA 9 12 9 26 — 56
Kealakehe 17 8 6 14 — 43
• Kalaheo 44, Honokaa 43: Derick Morgan and Kalei Zuttermmeister each scored 12 points and Josh Ko contributed eight to help the defending state Division II champion Mustangs survive against the hustling Dragons.
Kalaheo, under coach Alika Smith, led 28-21 at the intermission and 36-27 through three period. But the Dragons battled back to grab a 43-42 lead with 1:44 remaining in the fourth quarter on Isaiah Meyer’s clutch 3-pointer. Honokaa had closed to within 42-40 on the previous play when the quick Meyer stole the ball and scored on a breakaway layup.
The Mustangs answered after Meyer’s big trey with Ko busting backdoor for a layup to give Kalaheo a 44-43 advantage at the 1:19 mark.
Honokaa held the ball until :14 left when veteran coach Cheyenne Meyer called time out. The Dragons then took a perimeter shot with less than :05 remaining and Honokaa’s Wayne Vaoga grabbed the rebound and just missed a tough follow-up shot. A taller Mustang player then pulled down the rebound and time ran out in the most exciting game of the day.
Alika Alip led the Dragons with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Meyer and Vaoga each added eight points.
Following the tournament, Honokaa will host Kalaheo in a junior varsity/varsity doubleheader Sunday at Honokaa Armory. The JV teams play at 10:30 a.m., followed by the varsity at noon.
Kalaheo 14 14 8 8 — 44
Honokaa 17 8 6 14 — 43
• Hilo 56, Waiakea 45: Juniors Jalen Carvalho and Jodd Carter combined for 37 points to lead the Vikings to a come-from-behind win over the rival Warriors.
Waiakea led by eight early in the fourth period before Hilo went to a fullcourt press and suffocated the hosts, who turned over the ball nine times in the quarter and were outscored 26-9.
Carvalho (1 trey) led the way with 19 points and Carter (2 treys) had 18. The 6-2 Carvalho also had a team-high 11 rebounds.
Senior Owen Sandstrom topped Waiakea with 12 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Mark Pacris had 10 points and Lucas St. George added eight.
Hilo 10 10 10 26 — 56
Waiakea 5 21 10 9 — 45
• Waiakea 2 39, St. Joseph 13: Kahinu Alapai scored 11 points to lead the Warriors over the extremely young Cardinals.
Cole DeSilva, a promising freshman with a deadly 3-point shot, led St. Joseph with six points.
St. Joseph 6 3 4 0 — 13
Waiakea 2 13 2 18 6 — 39
At Keaau High
• Pahoa 68, Keaau 2 31: J. Lefiti scored 13 points and J. Kaniaka 12 to lead the Daggers in consolation action.
Charles Caldwell-Kaai had 12 points and Elysonne Quila nine for the Cougars.
Pahoa 19 15 19 15 — 68
Keaau 2 8 12 8 3 — 31
• Kalani 54, Keaau 53: Matthew Haili scored 13 points and Michael Primentel and Cory Mitchell 12 apiece to lead the Falcons from Oahu to an exciting double overtime win in consolation play.
Davin Alviento led the host Cougars with 18 points and Isiag Segobia had 14.
Kalani 6 15 9 8 6 10 — 54
Keaau 10 8 10 10 6 9 — 53
• Konawaena 57, Kohala 42: Brenton Shropshire scored 16 points and Jonah Bredeson 15 to lead the talented Wildcats in the Red bracket semifinal game. Konawaena will meet Kamehameha-Hawaii in today’s Red bracket final.
Kealen Figueroa and Hana Carvalho each had 10 points for the Division II Cowboys.
Konawaena 17 14 16 10 — 57
Kohala 16 10 8 8 — 42
• Kamehameha 71, Ka’u 30: High-flying senior Shaun Kagawa scored 13 points, Faolaina Teofilo 11 and Rylan Kiko 10 to lead the D-I Warriors.
Gregory Javar had nine points and Honua Kauhi eight to top the D-II Trojans.
Kamehameha 31 15 14 11 — 71
Ka’u 9 12 0 9 — 30
Note: Blue bracket results reported by Tom Correa; Red bracket results, by Iris McGuire.