By: Wes Nakama
The Oakwood (North Hollywood, Calif.) School boys basketball team completed a Happy Homecoming for its head coach Friday night by squeaking past Saint Louis, 51-50, to win the Punahou Invitational championship.
A sparse but vocal crowd at Hemmeter Fieldhouse watched Ben Eisendrath score 14 points and Oliver Ford add 11 points — including the go-ahead putback with 3:10 remaining — as the Owls improved to 9-6. Pupu Sepulona scored a game-high 24 points to lead the defending state champion Crusaders, who fell to 15-3.
Oakwood coach Steve Smith spent his early childhood years in Hawai’i. His father, Fred “Lucky” Smith, was the first University of Hawai’i player to be selected in the NBA Draft, in 1968 by the Milwaukee Bucks in the sixth round.
“It’s good to be back home,” Steve Smith said. “I lived here as a child.”
Oakwood reached the California Interscholastic Federation Division IV quarterfinals last season, and is classified as DIII this season, with mostly returnees on the roster.
The Owls edged Punahou, 58-57, in Thursday’s semifinals but trailed 14-5 five minutes into Friday’s title game before closing it to 28-27 at halftime.
Saint Louis led 50-45 after Jordan Nunuha’s steal and layup with 4:26 left in the game. But T.J. Boyd immediately responded with a layup at the other end, and Eisendrath sank two free throws with 3:27 remaining to close it to 50-49.
Ford then scored on a putback 17 seconds later to put Oakwood ahead for good.
Both teams had chances to either stretch the lead or take it, only to miss free throws and keep the score intact.
The Crusader’s final opportunity came after rebounding the front end of an Owls’ 1-and-1 with four seconds left, then getting the ball to midcourt on the near sideline. But a pass to the middle was intercepted and the final buzzer sounded.
“It’s a good learning experience for us,” Saint Louis coach Dan Hale said. “We had a play, we work on it. But credit to (Oakwood), they’re a good team. In the end, this was a great experience for us and we start the ILH (season) next week, so we gotta take what we learned and move on.”
Smith said he was impressed with Punahou and Saint Louis, and added there was not much answer for Sepulona, a brawny 6-3 sophomore with a full variety of inside and perimeter skills.
“They are very, very well-coached, they know how to play the game the right way,” Smith said. “They are great teams and would do well on the Mainland. And (Sepulona) … Oh my goodness. His athleticism, agility and his quickness, along with that size and strength. He’s a high school version — in terms of athleticism — like a LeBron (James).
“He’s just huge, and you can’t do anything with him. If you go out on him, he goes right by you. Then he has that spin dribble. Then he hits a 3-pointer from the corner. He’s like a high school version of LeBron James.”
For his part, Sepulona said he and the Crusaders still have work to do, but the experience gained from the Punahou Invitational and ‘Iolani Classic (Dec. 16-21) has already paid dividends.
“I think these past couple weeks, we got a lot better,, we got a lot out of it,” Sepulona said. “A lot to learn. Today’s game, this was a good lesson for us. But we need to focus on the ILH season.
“Tomorrow we have practice, and we just gotta get better.”