By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
As Waiakea coach Paul Lee knows winning is the best medicine to cure all sorts of ailments, especially for a basketball team not functioning to its full capacity.
After a 3-2 start and sporadic play due to an injury-plagued lineup, winning suddenly became contagious at the right time for the Warriors, who are riding a five-game Big Island Interscholastic Federation winning streak.
No. 2 seed Waiakea (9-2) is finally almost at full strength and takes on No. 3 Kamehameha (7-4) at 7:30 p.m. today at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in the BIIF Division I semifinals. In the other semifinal, it’s No. 1 Konawaena (9-2) vs. No. 4 Hilo (6-5) at 6 p.m.
The winners earn berths to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament, which runs Feb. 19-22 on Oahu. The losers are likely to be filled with disappointment and are done for the season.
During the regular season, Waiakea defeated Kamehameha 64-58 behind a monster game from center Lucas St. George, who scored 28 points on Jan. 7 at home. Kona took down Hilo 65-49 on Jan. 16 at home. The one-two guard punch of Brandon Awa and Chase Takaki led the way with 21 and 19 points, respectively.
In the Division II semifinals, it’s No. 1 Hawaii Prep (11-0) vs. No. 4 Honokaa (2-9) at 3 p.m., followed by No. 2 Kohala (8-3) vs. No. 3 Pahoa (4-7) at 4:30 p.m.
“They know what’s at stake, a state spot,” said Lee, who then talked about the blissful benefits of winning. “We’ve won six in a row and the ball is moving around more. Guys are making the extra pass. We’re executing better and guys are shooting at spots where their strength is.
“Before we were missing wide-open layups and free throws. We have seven losses (including preseason) and all are by less than 10 points. We’ve been in every game. Now, we have a sense of urgency. It’s win and go on, or lose and stay home. Winning heals a lot of things. When you win, guys work harder.”
Lee pointed to a 61-50 win over Kohala at Hisaoka Gym last month as his team’s defining defensive game. It was homecoming for the Cowboys, who had the crowd and enthusiasm on their side. But it was not enough.
“Our defense picked up at lot after our slow start,” he said. “Kohala is the toughest place on the whole island to play. But we were able to control things and won by 11 points.
“We were hampered so much with injuries. We couldn’t get a set rotation. All of our starters missed games this year. Two games ago, Bryson Ita’s shoulder popped out. Dillon Rellez and Kahinu Alapai had high ankle sprains and had no lift. But our guys are back and that has made us a lot better and been a difference with our depth.”
St. George is the anchor on both ends of the floor, but the Warriors have found another versatile weapon in freshman Calvin Mattos, the younger brother of former Waiakea standouts Chris and Jamie Mattos.
“We can use him in a lot of areas and he’s good in a lot of areas,” Lee said. “He can handle the ball, play defense, and slash and score. He can rebound. There are a lot of things he does to earn his playing time. He’ll take on the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player. He’s very valuable that way, saving Dillon and Maikai Gahan from not having to use their legs so much.
“Our outside shooting has gotten better. Dillon, Maikai and Cody Kojima can all hit 3-pointers and once in a while Calvin, too, when he gets hot. That opens the floor for Lucas. It’s a sign of respect when teams double-team him as part of their game plan to stop him. It opens up things for everybody else. We’re pretty deep and we’ve got good scorers.”
Next to Hilo senior Jalen Carvalho, who knocked down 36 points in a 80-74 win over Kealakehe to lock up the No. 4 seed on Feb. 8, there’s been no hotter shooter than Kamehameha’s Pukana Vincent.
The sophomore guard dropped 30 points in a 68-66 victory over Hilo on Jan. 30 at Hilo Civic. Then at home on Feb. 8, Vincent scored 32 points in a 74-71 against Kohala and its tenacious defense.
Lee also knows the dangers of a six-game winning streak. On the flip side of the coin, sometimes complacency slips in under the bed covers. After a win over St. Joseph, he hustled to take in last month’s thriller, jotting mental notes on Kamehameha’s high-revving motor.
“Their guards Bayley Manliguis and Vincent got a lot of offensive rebounds,” he said. “They’re a very athletic team. They play hard from start to finish and give a full effort. Hilo was up by 15 points, but Kamehameha wore them down. They bring maximum effort.
“But if we match that on Friday night, we’ll be fine. They switch up their defense. They’re good at trapping out of their zone or half-court. It’s pretty impressive how they’re all able to play on the same page.
“All four (Division I) teams are evenly matched. Every team has a couple of key players. I’m honestly hoping for a good game to entertain everybody. I’m looking forward to watching it, too.”