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Saint Louis holds off Punahou, 48-39, to complete ‘Three-peat’

By Wes Nakama

Eager and determined to put another stamp in the history books, Saint Louis raced out to a big early lead and then held off Punahou, 48-39, Saturday night to win its third straight Heide & Cooke/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championship.

A supportive crowd of 3,194 at Blaisdell Arena watched tournament Most Outstanding Player Pupu Sepulona notch game-highs of 11 points and seven rebounds as the Crusaders finished the season at 27-5. Point guard Noah Macapulay scored nine points to lead the Buff ‘N Blue, who ended up 23-6.

Saint Louis is the first school to three-peat since ‘Iolani won five straight between 2002 and 2006. Ironically, the last time the Crusaders’ program achieved the three-peat was in 1968, when they beat Punahou in the title game in the same Blaisdell Arena (called “Honolulu International Center” at the time).

“That is not easy to do,” said Saint Louis coach Dan Hale, who played on three straight championship teams for the Buff ‘N Blue from 1979-81. “Each year is kind of different and feels different, this feels different from last year. It’s a real testament to (the players) to do what we wanted to do. We could have (just) had a good year and rely on what we did last year, but they absolutely did not want to rest. And that’s how we got to this point.”

The Crusaders wasted no time in going after the crown Saturday, jumping out to an 11-0 lead, highlighted by two 3-pointers by Caelan Fernando and capped by Jordan Posiulai’s free throws with 4:27 remaining in the first period. Dash Watanabe finally broke the ice for Punahou with two free throws 13 seconds later, and the Buff ‘N Blue closed it to 15-8 by quarter’s end.

But Sepulona then capped an 8-0 run with a signature spin move and finish to stretch the lead to 21-8 with 5:22 left in the second period, and Fernando scored on a layup with 49 seconds remaining to help Saint Louis take a 27-16 halftime lead.

“They hit some big shots, Caelan’s two 3’s in the beginning were tough hurdles to overcome,” Punahou coach Darren Matsuda said. “They’re very athletic, very tough, and Dan’s done an awesome job with them.”

The Crusaders held the Buff ‘N Blue to 5 of 18 shooting (27.7 percent) in the first half, and Hale said the 11-0 start set the tone from the get-go.

“That was key for us,” Hale said. “It kind of cranked up our defense, we just tightened things up and did what we needed to do. It just shows how ready these guys were.”

Punahou cut it to 33-26 after three periods, and then 37-31 on Evan Porter’s layup with 5:20 left in the fourth. But Sepulona answered with a layup 18 seconds later, and the Buff ‘N Blue could not get closer than seven points the rest of the way. After Dillon Kellner’s baseline jumper closed it to 45-38 with 42 seconds on the clock, effectively sealed the victory with a putback in traffic 16 seconds later to make it 47-38.   

“That was emotional,” Sepulona said. “This season, I wasn’t really focusing on scoring, I was just focusing on everybody and their role on the court. Everybody contributed. I feel like our defense is the foundation of our team … we take pride in it to always play physical and aggressive. And we showed that today.”

Immediately after the final horn, Sepulona — a burly but amazingly quick and agile 6-foot-2 junior who is the reigning State Player of the Year — dropped to his knees at halfcourt and gave thanks to God. And in a postgame interview, he gave a shout-out to his neighborhood, where he honed his game as a youngster playing against older and bigger teenagers.

“I’m so blessed to come to Saint Louis and play with these brothers,” Sepulona said. “I was just a little kid playing at Kalakaua (Recreation Center), not knowing what my future would be. I’m just so proud and happy, where I am standing. I never thought I would have three state championships in basketball.”  

Photos: Lori McKeown

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