Behind 14 points from junior point guard Justas Gecas, Hawaii Preparatory Academy defeated Interscholastic League of Honolulu’s University High School 50-42 in a Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state tournament play-in game at Castle Gymnasium on Monday.
With the win, HPA earns the Big Island Interscholastic Federation’s second berth in the HHSAA tournament and will play Kaiser in the first round Thursday at Kaimuki High School on Oahu at 7 p.m.
“This win is a good thing not just for us, but for the BIIF,” said HPA co-head coach Fred Wawner. “We wanted to represent our conference. We have a good conference and we deserve to have two teams going over to the tournament every year. I’m excited for the kids, and now we get to go represent our island.”
Kohala defeated HPA 67-53 in the BIIF championship Saturday to earn an automatic berth into the tournament. Kohala will face Kauai at Kalani High School at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Anthony Canencia led University with 15 points, nine coming on late 3-pointers.
It was a well-balanced attack for HPA, who played without leading scorer Kalan Camero. Camero missed a second-straight game after suffering an “upper-body injury” in the BIIF semifinals Friday.
“It’s been really hard and we haven’t had any time to really talk about it,” said Wawner of losing his senior leader. “Kalan does so much more for us than what you can see on the court. He’s irreplaceable in that sense. We felt like we had to survive today. Tomorrow we can talk about what we will do going forward.”
HPA bounced back from the shocking upset loss to Kohala in the championship game — its first since the preseason — with a concise game plan and adjusted much better to life without Camero.
Evaldas Vertgas, Hide Akai, and Kenji Stinson all contributed eight points to the Ka Makani total, while David Ovbagbedia added 10 points and seven rebounds.
Ovbagbedia, the most athletic of the HPA big men, was the key to HPA’s explosive first half. The forward from Nigeria easily outleaped the helpless Junior Bows, and set the pace with four first-half alley-oops and battled down low for tough rebounds.
Ovbagbedia also provided the highlight of the night early in the second quarter. After receiving a pass from Gecas around the 3-point line, the 6-foot-4 senior drove down the baseline and threw down a thunderous dunk.
The play ignited the Ka Makani offense, which exploded for 21 points in the quarter. The total was the highest for HPA since the first quarter of the BIIF championship game.
“If there was one thing that we could say got away from us in the BIIF championship it was our post game,” Wawner said. “We had more of a meeting than a practice Sunday and we came to the conclusion that it has to be our identity to play this way. It enables us to be successful.”
HPA was clicking not just on the offensive end. Led by the big trio of Vegertas (6-foot-7), Nicky Palleshi (6-4) and Ovbagbedia, Ka Makani frustrated the Junior Bows’ offense and owned the painted area. University scored only a single basket from the post in the first half.
University settled in after the intermission, starting the third quarter on a 10-2 run and cutting the HPA lead to 10.
Sensing the momentum shift, the home crowd — led by two enthusiastic, costumed members of the student body — began an overwhelming “defense” chant that reinforced the home-court advantage.
Akai fed off the energy, blocking a 3-point attempt and stealing a pass on consecutive possessions to give the momentum advantage and a healthy double-digit lead back to Ka Makani entering the fourth.
Despite the large deficit, University was not ready to throw in the towel.
With 2:20 left in the game, Junior Bows forward Michah Agcaoili hit a 3-pointer to pull his team within nine points — the closest margin since Ovbagbedia’s dunk in the second quarter.
With less than two minutes left, the Bows resorted to fouling Ka Makani. Initially, the strategy worked, as HPA missed on the front end of two one-and-ones and turned the ball over on a five-second violation.
Canencia was the go-to shooter for the Bows, hitting on desperation 3-pointers from nearly three feet behind the arc. Despite the last ditch effort from University, HPA regained its composure and hit its free throws to seal the win.
“We were a little fragile emotion, so I would have to say everyone stepped up,” Wawner said. “Our big guys stepped up down there and hammered away. It was not always pretty but the fact that they get so much attention frees up our guards. That was our plan going in, and we were tough enough to execute.”
HPA 11 21 9 9 — 50
University 7 6 14 15 — 42