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No. 3 Saint Louis holds off No. 2 Punahou, 42-35

Friday, January 6, 2023

By: Wes Nakama

With its best player sitting out almost the entire first half due to foul trouble, Saint Louis turned to two juniors and a freshman for offense and they delivered big time to help the No. 3-ranked Crusaders eventually hold off visiting No. 2 Punahou, 42-35, in ILH boys basketball action Thursday night.

A sparse crowd at T.C. Ching Athletic Center watched Pupu Sepulona score a game-high 17 points — including 14 in the second half — as defending state champion Saint Louis improved to 17-3 overall and 2-0 in league play. Dillon Kellner scored 15 points to lead the Buff ‘n Blue, who fell to 14-5 and 0-2.

Sepulona, a multi-skilled sophomore forward who is averaging 19 points per outing, hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to start the game but then picked up two quick fouls and was sent to the bench with 4:46 remaining in the first period. He ended up sitting out the rest of the half.

But junior guard Jiovanni Ramos, freshman guard Keanu Meacham and junior post Jordan Posiulai more than collectively filled the void, scoring a combined 19 first-half points to help the Crusaders build a 24-12 lead en route to a 24-15 advantage at halftime.

“I’m so proud of our guys for stepping up,” Saint Louis coach Dan Hale said. “I mean, we had our biggest lead when (Sepulona) was on the bench, and they really rose up as a group. Punahou is a really good team, and we knew they were gonna come out and start hitting 3’s, and they did, they shaved that thing down to three points. But we had enough from that first half, enough of a cushion, to kind of weather that.”

Photo: Lori McKeown

Kellner drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Punahou a 5-3 lead about 90 seconds after Sepulona subbed out of the game, but Ramos immediately answered with a breakaway layup to start the Crusaders on a 9-2 run capped by Meacham’s short bank shot to make it 12-7 with 6:40 left in the half. After Jon Yoshimoto later swished a 3-pointer to cut it to 14-12 with 5:24 remaining, Posiulai scored on a putback to ignite a 10-0 surge culminating in Meacham banking in a floater to extend the lead to 24-12 with 2:12 on the clock.

Heimana Richmond later sank a free throw and then made a layup to cut the halftime deficit to 24-15, but it clearly was a lift for Saint Louis knowing the lead was built even with Sepulona sidelined.

“We just took care of the ball, we tried to limit our turnovers and get more possessions off it, and get more shots,” said Meacham, a 5-foot-11 wing who scored six points in the first half and finished with eight. “Even if Pupu was on the bench, we knew he was going to come back in, so we kept on going.”

Punahou coach Darren Matsuda gave the Crusaders credit for keeping things together with their leading scorer sidelined.

“They did a good job of staying in the moment, and staying the course,” Matsuda said. “That’s something we preach to our kids, but they didn’t do it. For some reason, we came out for this game really nervous, really shaky, and I don’t think we believed in ourselves today. We didn’t play with any confidence, and that hurt us.”

Kellner opened the second half with a 3-pointer from the left wing, Kekai Burnett followed with a another 3 from the top of the key and then sank one of two free throws to cut it to 24-22 two minutes in, and after the teams traded baskets, Sepulona drained another 3-pointer from the left corner to put the Crusaders ahead, 29-24, at the end of the third period.

After Burnett opened the fourth period with a post layup, Sepulona answered with yet another 3-pointer to kick-start a 9-2 run capped by his own layup to stretch the lead to 38-28 at the four-minute mark. But Kellner and Dash Watanabe swished back-to-back 3-pointers, and Burnett sank the second of two free throws to cut it to 38-35 with 55 seconds showing on the clock.

Sepulona then sank the second of two free throws to make it 39-35 with 19 ticks left, and converted one of two again six seconds later to make it 40-35. After a turnover at the other end, Sepulona then raced to the basket for a buzzer layup for the final margin.

“A lot of their points came off of our mistakes, turnovers were huge today,” Matsuda said. “They were mostly unforced, they weren’t really pressuring the ball, it was just us being careless … Right now, we gotta get back to finding ourselves, because right now we’re not playing with any confidence, for whatever reason. Right now it’s all about us and we gotta try to right the ship, because we were playing at a very high level before, and for some reason right now we’re making a lot of self-inflicted errors that are kind of killing us.” 

Photos: Lori McKeown