KEALAKEKUA — Konawaena is used to being the home team in the HHSAA girls Division I state basketball tournament. However, they are not used to actually playing at home, and they are definitely not used to playing in the opening round.
The Wildcats received a bye through the first round of states for 10 consecutive years, a streak that was snapped this season when Konawaena fell to Waiakea in the BIIF championship game.
Entering the tournament as an unseeded team for the first time since 2008, the Wildcats pulled away in the second half of Monday’s game against OIA’s Leilehua.
Konawaena shot 63 percent from the field and 53 percent from 3-point range in a 61-41 victory against the Mules at the Ellison Onizuka Gymnasium.
It was the first time the Wildcats had hosted a state playoff game on the Big Island since a loss to Mililani in the quarterfinals at Kealakehe High School in 2014.
“The girls didn’t get to go to any off-island preseason games so they didn’t want to lose. They wanted to go to Honolulu,” said Konawaena head coach Bobbie Awa. “We ended up losing the last time we hosted a game here and when you don’t get to go to Oahu, it doesn’t really feel like you are at states.”
The Wildcats earned their island hopping trip by shaking off their third quarter shooting woes behind junior Grace Lyn Hing, who went 6-for-7 from beyond the arc, leading to a game-high 20 points.
“We struggled in the third quarter in previous games and I wanted to come out playing harder,” said Hing, who was a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point land in the third. “I did a lot of shooting this past week and it helped.”
Konawaena jumped out to a 31-22 first half lead behind the free throw accuracy of freshman Kaliana Salazar Harrell. She went 7-of-8 over the first 16 minutes and finished second on the team with 15 points.
“I always work on my free throw shots,” Harrell said. “I was told by my coach to work on driving inside so I can get to the free throw line more because I am good from there.”
Harrell also led the team with seven rebounds, eight assists and three steals. Hing finished with five rebounds and three assists.
“They were getting their shots down in the flow of our offense,” Awa said. “We don’t want them taking bad shots, but as my son says, ‘it is not equal opportunity, but if you are open take the shot or you will be sitting on the sideline.’”
Konawaena freshman Kayla Pak also reached double-digits in scoring, finishing with 11 points.
Defensively, the Wildcats held Leilehua to 22 first half points and 19 second half points.
“Grace is our key defender and she did a good job on their senior Kaylen Kamelamela, but it was really the entire team that did well,” Awa said. “Caiyle Kaupu (junior) had some good picks and and Kayla also defended well. You can pick out a different player in each moment throughout the entire game.”
The Mules were led by a pair of 12-point performances from seniors Victoria Canencia and Asia Castillo.
Next up for Konawaena is a quarterfinal game with No. 4 seed Kahuku on Thursday at Moanalua. Game time is set for 7 p.m.
“I haven’t watched the film on them yet because we were focused on the game against Leilehua,” Awa said. “I heard they are big and tough. They won the OIA so they must be very good. They earned their spot for a reason.”
This is the 21st trip to the state tournament for the Wildcats. This is Konawaena’s 18th straight appearance, tying the school with Lahainaluna for the longest consecutive steak and the longest current streak.
The Lunas earned a No. 3 seed for the tournament and will play in their first game in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
The Wildcats are the defending four time state champion and have won the title nine times, all coming in Awa’s reign. She is 9-3 overall in the title game.
The Wildcats have met Maryknoll in the last three championships. The Spartans did not reach the playoffs after graduating most of their team last year.
The championship game is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Stan Sheriff Center. The game will be broadcast on OC16.