By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kamehameha, the league’s longest model of consistency, looks like a similar version to last season’s edition, the one that planted another championship flag atop the island’s mountain — same concept, same players.
When the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II girls basketball playoffs roll around, no one has been able to knock off the Warriors, at least for the last six years and they’re just as tough on the big stage at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament.
Kamehameha (8-3), the No. 2 seed, plays No. 3 Kohala (6-5) at 4:30 p.m. today in the BIIF semifinals at Keaau High’s gym, with a state spot on the line.
In the earlier game at 3 p.m., No. 1 Honokaa (9-2) faces Hawaii Prep (5-6). The Dragons already have a state berth with the BIIF regular season title.
The semifinal losers will face off in another musical chairs fight for the league’s third and last state berth at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
In the Division I portion, No. 1 Konawaena (11-0), the five-time defending BIIF champion, battles No. 4 Keaau (4-7) at 6 p.m. today, followed by No. 2 Hilo (10-1) vs. No. 3 Waiakea (7-4) at 7:30 p.m.
As the BIIF regular season champs, the Wildcats have already secured the first of the league’s two spots to the Division I state tournament.
When the Warriors watch the Dragons in the first game, they’ll see a similar version of themselves. Both teams work the ball inside first. Both have invaluable state experience. Kamehameha, the two-time defending state champion, has been there nine years in a row; Honokaa has gone three straight times.
But there are differences. The Dragons have a deep bench. The Warriors can’t afford to play a full-time press because of their limited depth. They can’t gamble with fouls, especially with help-side rotations, or exhaust their starters, especially Casey Poe, Makamae Gabriel and Riana Arima, all valuable scorers and defenders.
With six straight BIIF titles and two consecutive state crowns, Kamehameha has figured out the best way to keep winning when games matter most. It also helps to have someone like the 5-foot-10 Poe, who scored 28 points in the state championship 55-46 win over Honokaa last year.
“The girls sense that urgency and really start focusing,” Kamehameha coach Garrett Arima said. “It’s self-confidence, believing that they can do this. I think it’s that confident winning attitude, what it comes down to. It goes from the BIIF tourney and carries on through states.
“The girls find somewhere inside that this is where we want to be. They put it all together at the end. It’s a tribute to them. We tell them, ‘We can give you the X’s and O’s, but we can’t play for you.’ What you put in is what you get out of it. It’s that commitment to winning where the extraordinary comes in.”
The Warriors graduated last season’s point guard, Mele Naipo-Arsiga, who added 10 points against the Dragons in her last game. Riana Arima and Poe have spent time running the offense, putting more ball-handling duties in their hands. That has turned Gabriel, a 5-9 junior, into a bigger scoring option, especially when she and Poe, the team’s only senior, run their high-low post game.
The flip side of the coin is sometimes the ball doesn’t find Poe when she’s in a good spot in the paint. But when she does get the ball, the reigning BIIF Player of the Year is dangerous in a variety of ways. One nice piece of her skill-set is her ability to shoot the ball high, releasing clean shots even when she’s fouled.
“I tell her, ‘There are not many bigs in the post who can defend you because you’re so long.’ It’s about getting her the ball,” Arima said. “We’re looking to get her the ball. The good thing is she’ll get fouled or finish or it’s both. Maka has probably been our most improved player, with her numbers. She’s rebounding, attacking the basket and playing tough defense. When teams double or triple team Casey, that’s given her looks. She’s had her share of looks and is finishing for us. That’s a plus.
“I think we have the best one-two scoring punch in the post with Casey and Maka. They play well together and they’re pretty much our bread-and-butter in the post. We look to the post first. Riana has set the tone on the perimeter, and we’ve used a couple of others at the point, Caitlin Poe, Tiana Ramelb. They can all hit big shots on the perimeter. We like to go inside and out also. But really we’re more about utilizing Casey’s ability.”
In the most likely scenario, it’ll be Round 2 with Kamehameha and Honokaa for the BIIF championship. In the first meeting, the Dragons won 42-35 at Honokaa Armory, outscoring the Warriors 11-5 in the fourth quarter. Kamehameha also had its customary slow start, getting outscored 11-6 in the first period.
But the postseason is always different for the six-time champs. The Warriors find a way to kick their game into another gear. Actually, Arima’s advice to his players is pretty simple.
“It’s valuing possessions and getting timely stops,” he said. “It’s about protecting the ball, again, possession basketball for us, taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers. That’s what we tell the girls.
“We’ve got to get past Kohala. We don’t know what to expect. They’ve got a lot of athletic girls, push the ball and run. It’s the same concept as Honokaa. They’ll run and play physical. Hopefully, we’ll do what we need to do on Friday, rest up a little for Saturday’s game, and see what happens.”