By KYLE GALDEIRA
Stephens Media Hawaii
HONOLULU — In anticipation of Saturday’s championship clash with Kalani, Hawaii Preparatory Academy co-head coach Fred Wawner noted that his squad would need to neutralize the speed of the Falcons and play at its own comfortable grind-it-out pace.
Ka Makani executed the game plan to perfection and stifled offensive-minded Kalani 42-33 in the title game of the HHSAA Division II state boys basketball tournament at the Neal Blaisdell Arena.
HPA leaned on post players David Ovbagbedia (12 points, 11 rebounds, 1 blocked shot) and Nicky Palleschi (9 points and 5 rebounds), while point guard Justas Gecas (8 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) ran the offense to perfection while dribbling out of continuous pressure — including some double- and triple-team efforts — applied by Kalani’s pesky defenders.
“They’re a high-tempo team that likes to run, and our game is totally opposite; we like to play slow, control the ball and run our plays,” said Gecas, whose fingers were bloodied and taped after being harassed all game by the opposition through 31 of a possible 32 minutes. “It’s the first time in school history that we’re in the final and first time we won. It’s a great feeling, and all the hard work paid off.”
Hawaii Prep (16-1) held a distinct height and size advantage, and neutralized Kalani’s speed and daunting full-court defensive pressure. Gecas employed a deft display of dribbling that allowed the agile court marshal to evade the press, while Falcons’ go-to scorer Brandon Roberts was held to just seven points on a dismal 2-of-18 shooting from the field, including just 1 of 11 conversions from behind the 3-point arc.
HPA parlayed its supreme size into a distinct rebounding advantage, as Ka Makani controlled the boards 39-21, including a 16-9 edge in offensive rebounds.
Kalani (8-8) of the Oahu Interscholastic Association attempted to rally midway through the fourth quarter on a 9-2 run spurred by five straight points from Roberts and four from Ace Faumui (12 points, 7 rebounds) that cut the deficit to 36-31 with 2:33 remaining in the game. Ka Makani did not panic, however, and continued to slow the game’s pace while making six free throws down the stretch to ice the victory.
“Even though we couldn’t get a basket to go down in the first half, our tempo was right and that’s who we are,” Wawner said. “We were handling their pressure (down the stretch) because they have so many different weapons off the bounce. David (Ovbagbedia) pulled down three or four big rebounds late in the fourth quarter, and that was huge.”
Despite controlling the action in the opening quarter, Ka Makani managed a slim 10-7 lead after converting just four of 19 field goal attempts in the first frame. Both squads combined to turn the ball over nine times in the early going, a noticeable result of the big-game pressure felt in the cavernous arena.
The red-and-white clad HPA squad gained some breathing room by outscoring Kalani 7-2 over the final few minutes of the first half. Ka Makani took a 21-12 halftime lead on a sweet pass from Gecas through traffic in the lane right to a streaking Ovbagbedia, who converted a contested layup and drained the ensuing free throw after being fouled with 3.7 seconds to play before intermission.
The momentum-shifting play represented a five-point swing, as Kalani appeared poised to set up a short-range shot opportunity before turning the ball over for the eighth time in the opening two quarters.
Ka Makani, under Wawmer and co-head coach Dave Huntington, ran through the Big Island Interscholastic Federation campaign undefeated until losing to Kohala in the league title game on Feb. 15. Senior guard Kalan Camero suffered a concussion on Feb. 14 during the BIIF semifinals, and did not return to action despite being declared “day-to-day” by Wawner. The player was seen warming up on the court prior to the contest, and was suited up in full uniform.
Saturday’s title game marked the first time in four years that an unseeded team emerged with the D-II state crown. Hawaii Prep made its third consecutive state tournament appearance, and was able to get past the semifinal round for the first time after finishing third in the previous two attempts.