By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KEAAU — It was everything a championship game is supposed to be. Konawaena and Hilo fit their roles perfectly as the champion and challenger, respectively. One team tried so desperately to take the crown away while the other held on with great determination.
In the end, the Wildcats did what champions do: they found an answer every time the Vikings banged on their door and threatened to kick it down. And when Kona needed someone to step up with so much pressure on the line, Chanelle Molina came up clutch, like she normally does.
The sophomore guard swished the tying and go-ahead free throws as Kona prevailed over Hilo 46-45 in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I girls basketball championship Saturday night, running its winning streak in the league to 69 games.
Molina scored a game-high 15 points, including sinking free throws for the tying and go-ahead points with 18.2 seconds remaining in the game, for the Wildcats (13-0), who captured their sixth straight BIIF title.
Jasmine Perea added 11 points, Ihi Victor eight, and Celena Molina seven to provide a bit of scoring balance because Hilo sophomore Sharlei Graham-Bernisto made Chanelle Molina work for all her points.
“That was two clutch shots,” Kona coach Bobbie Awa said. “I told the girls that nobody really gave us a chance this year because we had two good starters back in Chanelle and Ihi, and three freshmen and two seniors who didn’t have much playing time last year.
“But the girls have a lot of heart and played hard. After the Christmas break, they got more focused and tried to push each other. It’s a really big win because Hilo is an awesome team.”
Aliyah Pana scored 11 points, Alexis Pana 10, all in the second half, and Shalyn Guthier added eight points for the Vikings (11-2), who had a slow start and trailed 27-16 at halftime.
The defensive focus and fast-paced tempo showed in each team’s shooting. Kona made just 33 percent (17 of 52); Hilo hit 30 percent (16 of 53) from the field.
Hilo played a straight man defense, and turned up the pressure in the third quarter, down 35-20, squeezing Kona’s ball-handlers and eventually coming up with turnovers. For the game, the Wildcats had 21 turnovers; the Vikings had just eight giveaways.
Alexis Pana made two free throws to start a 9-0 scoring run. Hilo’s bench came up big when Amber Vaughn and Cierra Kelii followed with back-to-back layups off turnovers. Then Guthier scored on a putback, got fouled and sank her free throw to complete the three-point play.
It was suddenly Kona 35-29 with 3:12 left in the third quarter and the Viking faithful roared their enthusiasm. Celena Molina scored on a layup to temporarily stop Hilo’s scoring spree. Vaughn nailed a 3-pointer to get the ball rolling again.
What really hurt Hilo was when Perea scored on a putback right at the buzzer. That failure to block out would come back to haunt Hilo later. The Wildcats led 40-34 heading into the final eight minutes.
To start the fourth quarter, the Pana sisters attacked the rim. First, Aliyah zipped in for a layup in a half-court set. On Hilo’s next possession, Alexis scored off a turnover and it was 42-38 with a lot of time left.
After Kona missed the front end of three straight one-and-one free throw attempts, Alexis buried the second of her two 3-pointers. Hilo trailed 44-43 with 2:57 remaining. Later, her senior sister converted two free throws for a 45-44 lead with a minute to go.
Then with 31 seconds left, Alexis Pana guarded Chanelle Molina, who’s 5 feet 6 and gives up three inches to the Hilo sophomore point guard. Molina went around a screen to shake Pana, drove the baseline and dished to her freshman sister Celena.
Celena missed, but Chanelle got the rebound, went up for a shot and was fouled. With 18.2 seconds on the clock and the crowd in her ears, Chanelle Molina stepped to the free-throw line with Kona down a point.
At the time, she was 2 of 5 on free throws. About a minute earlier, she missed two free throws attempts in a double-bonus situation. But she canned both with no problem, after making a few adjustments.
Molina made 4 of 7 free throws while the Wildcats went 8 of 17; Hilo sank 7 of 10 free throws.
“I struggled with my free throws, but knew I had to make those free throws,” she said. “I blocked everyone out, focused on the basket and it went in. I adjusted my elbow. It was too inside and I held my follow-through.”
The Vikings had 6.2 seconds left. They inbounded near midcourt, after a Kona turnover, and the ball eventually found Chailey Cabalis, who drove baseline and put up a shot that rolled off the rim. Perea grabbed the rebound, and time expired.
Cabalis was bummed that Hilo came so close but couldn’t get it done. But she saw through that disappointment to praise the effort of her team.
“We all worked together. We’re a family,” she said. “We had to think positive and pull together to rally. We had to believe in ourselves.”
Kona had a similar mindset and Chanelle Molina exemplified that, especially when she knocked down two clutch free throws that helped win her team another championship.
Hilo 5 11 18 11 — 45
Kona 16 11 13 6 — 46