On-Air Now
On-Air Now
Listen Live
, , ,

Saint Louis races past Punahou, 60-42, to three-peat as ILH champion

By Wes Nakama

Quickly finishing the long road to a three-peat, Saint Louis raced past Punahou, 60-42, Monday night to win its third straight ILH boys basketball championship.

A near-capacity crowd of about 1,200 at Hemmeter Fieldhouse watched Stone Kanoa score 15 points, Pupu Sepulona add 13 points and Caelan Fernando chip in 12 points as the Crusaders improved to 24-5 overall while finishing 11-3 in league play, earning the ILH’s top seed and first-round bye in next week’s state tournament. James Taras scored a game-high 17 points and Ayndra Uperesa-Thomas added 12 points for the Buff ‘n Blue, who secured its state berth by winning the regular season double round-robin and fell to 20-5, 9-2. Punahou will begin state tournament play in Monday’s opening round.

Under the ILH’s postseason format, by finishing second in the regular season at 7-3, Saint Louis had to beat Mid-Pacific (67-54), Kamehameha (56-43) and Maryknoll (36-34) last week just to earn the right to play the Buff ‘n Blue for all the marbles on Monday. On the road, no less.

“Coming off that Maryknoll win (Saturday), it gave us momentum,” said Sepulona, a junior forward who is the reigning State Player of the Year. “Coming into this game, we were so focused and so locked in, and today everybody saw that we did our thing. Everybody contributed, and it was a team win.”

Despite it being the Crusaders’ fourth game in seven days, they showed no signs of fatigue Monday in jumping out to leads of 7-0, 13-3 and 20-6 in the first 11 minutes. Punahou closed it to 21-15 on Taras’ three-point play with 2:13 remaining in the second period, but Fernando’s free throw with 0:01.8 showing on the clock pushed the lead to 24-15 at halftime.

After the Buff ‘n Blue closed out the regular season with a 63-53 victory over Mid-Pacific on Jan. 25, the league had an entire week with no games, and Punahou’s first-place finish meant it could bypass the ILH tournament last week. Buff ‘n Blue coach Darren Matsuda acknowledged the long layoff may have had a negative impact on his team.

“It probably did, just because we were pretty rusty, we hadn’t played in 18 days,” Matsuda said. “But it is what it is. I thought we looked pretty sharp in practice (last week), but when we came out today we turned the ball over, a lot of stuff we did today was kind of self-inflicted. On the other hand, those guys (the Crusaders) are running on all cylinders. They’re playing good ball right now.”

After Punahou cut the deficit to 29-21 on Dillon Kellner’s putback two and a half minutes into the third period, but Sepulona answered with a layup in traffic to ignite a stunning 18-2 run capped by Kanoa’s bank shot to stretch the lead to 47-23 with 6:21 remaining in the game. The Buff ‘n Blue got as close as 55-42 on Taras’ layup with three minutes left, but that would end their scoring and Saint Louis closed out the game with five straight points.

“They’re such a good team, you saw how quickly they cut a lead, so we wanted to make sure we just kept it to what we do,” Crusaders coach Dan Hale said. “We’re all about defense over here, and we were fortunate they were a little bit off at the beginning and we got the ball to the guys that we needed to. And once you get a little bit of a lead, you know they’re going to make a run, so we gotta really screw it down and make sure we get the shots that we want.”

Hale said the postseason format and three victories last week ended up being positive for his team overall.

“The disadvantage is that our guys are gassed, playing four games since (last) Tuesday,” Hale said. “The advantage that we had is we were clicking, and were ready to roll together.”

Sepulona said defending the title was not easy, and forced Saint Louis to rise to the challenge.

“Losing to Punahou and Maryknoll (back-to-back) in the first round, it just kind of gave us that bump in the road,” Sepulona said. “But I feel like me and my teammates, we were built to go through adversity. And that’s what we proved today.”

Photos: Jonathan Salvador

Mahalo to these sponsors for proudly backing Hawai’i high school sports, enabling us to continue showcasing athletes and schools here in the 808. Your support makes it all possible.