HONOLULU — As the saying goes, it’s hard to beat a good team twice.
Behind a pair of double-doubles from senior standout Mikayla Tablit and stellar sophomore Caylie Kaupu, Konawaena led nearly wire-to-wire in a 50-45 win over Maui rival Lahainaluna in the HHSAA Division I semifinals on Friday night at the Neal Blaisdell Center.
Tablit netted 14 points to go with 10 rebounds while Kaupu scored 12 and grabbed 10 boards for the three-time defending state champions. Cherilyn Molina added 10 for the ‘Cats.
Lahainaluna guard Braeanna Estabillo-Donato notched a game-high 15 points in the losing effort, while Susitina Namoa had 14.
The victory avenges a preseason loss to the Lunas, in which the Wildcats fell 44-42 in double overtime after a furious second half comeback.
This time it was Lahainaluna staging a second half surge, erasing an 11-point third quarter deficit. But the Wildcats were able to hang on for the win with some solid free-throw shooting down the stretch.
“We knew Lahaina wasn’t going to give up. That’s just how they play,” Konawaena head coach Bobbie Awa said. “We really didn’t talk about that first game too much. We just knew we had to get by the Lunas if we wanted to play tomorrow and have a shot at the trophy. One game at a time.”
The Lunas and Wildcats have been rivals for years, frequently facing off in the preseason, a result of the bond built between Awa and Luna head coach Todd Rickard.
“We respect them, they respect us,” Kaupu said on the OC16 broadcast postgame. “That’s how it has always been.”
The 10-time defending BIIF champion Wildcats head back to the state title game for the fourth consecutive year and have been on the championship stage all but one time in the last decade.
With eight titles to her name, Awa is the winningest girls coach in Hawaii history. But always humble, she credits the staff around her — notably assistant coach Jessica Hanato and co-head coach Dawnyelle Awa, her daughter and former player — for the program’s incredible longevity, reeling off a list of names of all those who have helped.
“There are so many people to credit. Some are still here, some are gone,” Awa said. “What I also have are kids that come in and believing in the program and that want to be a part of the tradition.”
For a third year in a row, the Wildcats will see ILH champion and the tournament’s top seed Maryknoll in the final. The Spartans beat BIIF runner-up Waiakea 75-40 in the second semifinal on Friday. The championship will be televised on OC16, with the tip scheduled for 7 p.m.
Maryknoll defeated the Wildcats by a healthy margin in a preseason matchup, 56-37. It’s the only other blemish on Konawaena’s otherwise terrific 25-2 resume.
“Maryknoll is stacked,” Awa said. “They have a good starting five and the next five off the bench are good too. We have to come in, play our game and be smart out there.”
If the Wildcats proved anything against the Lunas though it’s that they are far from the team they were when the season started. All arrows point to this time around being much more competitive.
“We play more as a team now,” Kaupu said. “It’s not ‘I’ basketball anymore. No one is thinking about themselves.”
Kaupu erupted onto the scene last year as a freshman and has continued to be an impact player for Konawaena. However, she has been plagued by foul trouble in some of the Wildcats’ more important games this season, including the first matchup with the Lunas.
“Caylie came into the season with a lot of expectations, but she has handled it well,” Awa said. “She may just be a sophomore but has a lot of experience playing travel ball against mainland competition. She is comfortable out there.”
Kaupu finished with four fouls — one away from the limit — but being able to stay in for most of the game gave the Wildcats a decisive edge down low. Konawaena outscored the Lunas in the paint 28-18 and had more offensive rebounds (18) than defensive (17).
“Our guards are really turning it up, grabbing those rebounds,” Awa said.
If there was another edge for Konawaena, it came at the charity stripe. As a team, the Wildcats were 11-of-15, compared to the Lunas, who converted on only 1-of-5 free throws, all coming off the hands of Namoa.
“We really weren’t shooting free throws well coming into the tournament,” Awa said. “But it’s nice to see. Now they have to keep it up.”
The Wildcats emptied the bench during the team’s lopsided quarterfinal win over Moanalua, with every player on the roster notching a bucket. Against the Lunas it was a different story. The starting five for Konawaena played almost the full game. Moo Moo Fautanu was the only Wildcat off the bench, seeing three minutes in relief of Kaupu.
But at this point in the year, the Wildcats starters are used to running for a full 32 minutes. And with one game left, they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“The girls are so confident in their game,” Awa said. “If it’s close down the stretch, they always feel like they can pull it out.”
Lahainaluna 8 9 14 14 — 45
Konawaena 10 13 12 15 — 50