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Georgia powerhouse Milton survives Punahou’s upset bid, 68-61

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Written By: Wes Nakama

Literally taking Punahou’s best shots and responding with its own, the Milton (Ga.) boys basketball team survived the Buff ‘n Blue’s exciting upset bid, 68-61, Saturday night to advance to the ‘Iolani Classic quarterfinals.

A spirited crowd of about 600 at ‘Iolani Gym watched the Eagles improve to 10-0 and move on to Monday’s 8 p.m. rematch against Millenium (Goodyear, Ariz.), a team they beat in a Mainland tournament just one week ago. Punahou fell to 8-2 and into a consolation bracket game against Moanalua at 10:30 a.m. Monday. 

Despite the loss, the Buff ‘n Blue can take some strong momentum into the coming week knowing they traded blows for much of the game against one of the elite programs in the Southeast region. Milton has three state championships and two runner-up finishes in the past 12 years, including a state title in 2021 competing in Georgia’s top classification.

“They’re tough, they listen to their coach, and the way they play, they make the game hard,” Milton head coach Allen Whitehart said of Punahou. “They don’t ever let you settle into your stuff or get (into) a rhythm. They’re changing it up, they do a really good job of getting taps from behind … they never let you just settle in, like in a regular game where you can just bring the ball up and get into your stuff. We didn’t get many films on them, but the films we saw, we knew kind of how they play. We knew they were really tough, and we knew they weren’t ever going to quit. I think they would do really well on the Mainland.”

After a close (14-11) first period, the Eagles went ahead 33-26 at halftime on Josh Dixon’s four-point play at the buzzer and stretched the lead to 48-36 after Seth Fitzgerald’s layup with 46 seconds remaining in the third. Kekai Burnett then sank one of two free throws and Dillon Kellner drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer to close it to 48-40 entering the fourth. Tucker Lam and James Taras then highlighted a 12-4 run to open the fourth with a pair of triples as Jon Yoshimoto’s layup tied it at 52-52 with 4:44 left.

“We felt like we could beat Milton and compete with them at the highest level,” said Lam, a 6-foot-1 senior guard who finished with a game-high 20 points. “We were getting open looks, they switched their defense to a 2-3 (zone). We just had to keep on fighting, and get on runs.”

After the Eagles answered with two quick buckets, Lam banked in a jumper from just inside the top of the key to close it to 56-54, but Devan Rush quickly responded with a 3-pointer from the right corner to ignite an 8-1 run to make it 64-55 with 1:18 remaining. Lam then swished a 3-pointer to cut it to 64-58 ten seconds later, and Kellner drained a triple to trim the lead to 66-61 with 12 ticks showing on the clock, but sophomore guard Avery White sealed the victory by sinking a pair of free throws two seconds later.

“That’s a hallmark of a championship team, is to be able to answer, and they did a good job of that,” Punahou coach Darren Matsuda said. 

Fitzgerald led Milton’s well-balanced offense with 17 points, followed by White with 16 and Josh Dixon and Devan Rush (14 each). Kellner and Ayndra Uperesa-Thomas each added 10 points for the Buff ‘n Blue, who finished with 10 makes from beyond the arc.

“We were right there, but we gotta take care of some of the small things that we didn’t do well on, to get over the hump,” Matsuda said. “I told the kids we can’t be satisfied with that, because if we’re satisfied, we’re never going to get better. We want to get better, we want to get over that hump.”

Photos by: Lori McKeown