HILO – For most of the game, Keaau worked the ball for open shots and made more than 50 percent from the field against Konawaena, which struggled to get defensive stops.
But the Wildcats remained resilient and patient and didn’t allow any big Cougar scoring runs. That kept Konawaena in the ballgame long enough to pull out a 53-47 win over Keaau for third place at the Hilo High/Holiday Prep Classic on Saturday night at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
The Wildcats are a brand new team. There are no familiar names from a program that has been to the HHSAA tournament the last six years or won three straight BIIF titles from 2013 to ’15.
Only Aldrin Gadot and Seth Mattos are back from last year’s team, which finished as the BIIF runner-up for the third straight year.
When the Wildcats play together, especially on defense, they can be tough to beat.
“At a preseason tournament on Maui, we beat Kahuku, but lost to Baldwin, and Kahuku destroyed Baldwin,” Konawaena coach Donny Awa said. “We’re so up and down. When we play at 80 percent, we’re going to give up open looks. We’re playing man defense and have to work harder.”
Ethan Neru slashed his way for 18 points to lead the Wildcats. Kahiau Holzgrove added 10 points, Gadot nine and Elisha Martin had eight points for Konawaena, which matched Keaau’s hot shooting with a 50 percent clip.
The Wildcats trailed 24-19 at halftime, but Gadot pushed them in front, 48-46, with a 3-pointer with 3:06 left.
Konawaena hit 2 of 4 free throws down the stretch, and Neru capped the scoring with a layup.
Patrick Mears scored 18 points and Isaiah Akana added 16 points for the Cougars, who also lost the third-place game at the Waiakea-Keaau tournament two weeks ago. They each knocked down a pair of 3-pointers.
Neru is a 6-foot-1 guard with slashing ability and a smooth stroke at the free throw line. He sank 5 of 7 from the line. The Wildcats, who were runner-up at the Waiakea-Keaau tourney, made their effort in the paint pay off and converted 14 of 22 free throws.
Last year, Neru transferred from New Mexico and was set to play but sat out. He would have been a perfect fit with the old Wildcats, including four-year point guard Austin Ewing.
“He could have been the missing piece last year,” Awa said. “He would have loved to have played with Austin.”
Konawaena beat Hilo 46-42 in the BIIF opener last Tuesday, but the Vikings avenged that loss in the tournament semifinals Friday, winning 65-57.
Awa acknowledges that Waiakea is the team to beat but thinks his roster has enough key components. Martin is a strong inside presence as a rebounder and post scorer. Holzgrove knows his way around the low post and Gadot runs the floor and isn’t afraid to pull the trigger from long range.
“I think we’ve got talent and the pieces,” Awa said. “We just have to play together.”