Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

HONOLULU — A two-time defending state champion is not dismissed so easily.

Saint Louis’ veterans forestalled an Interscholastic League of Honolulu regular-season championship for Punahou by going on the road to defeat the Buffanblu, 53-39, at Hemmeter Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

The Crusaders focused on denying clean perimeter looks to the Buffanblu to open the game, contributing to a 21-5 run from which Punahou (8-1) never recovered as it took its first league loss of the season.

Saints star Pupu Sepulona scored only nine but went into playmaker mode with five assists. His frontcourt counterpart Jordan Posiulai scored 10, as did wing Stone Kanoa. Point guard Caelan Fernando stepped up with timely buckets to counter the Buffanblu as they pressed to try to get back into the game in the fourth quarter.

Saint Louis lost consecutive games to Punahou and Maryknoll on Jan. 11 and 13 but has since won four straight.

“You know, we give props to Punahou. They’re a really tough team. Even Maryknoll,” said Fernando, who scored eight. “Going for that three-peat is hard. We’ve got a target on our backs. We have to come out with the same energy again.”

Punahou still leads Saint Louis (7-2) by a game could still clinch the ILH regular season title and one of two of the league’s coveted state berths on Thursday at Mid-Pacific (2-7).

After that berth is claimed, everyone else in stacked ILH Division I will battle it out for the second and final state berth.

“At this point you just want your team to be playing the best basketball it can be playing,” Saint Louis coach Dan Hale said. “It was a good step for us and we just gotta keep progressing so that when we get to the (ILH) tournament, we’re ready to go.”

Saint Louis faces Maryknoll (6-3) on the road on Thursday.

Hale, who helped the Crusaders end a 36-year boys basketball state title drought in 2022, was making his first visit to Punahou since an unusual offseason episode in which he took an athletic facilities supervisor job at his alma mater, then reversed course four weeks later when he was offered a full athletic director position at Saint Louis to return to coach boys basketball.

Saint Louis coach Dan Hale made a return to his alma mater, Punahou, since an offseason reversal from taking a job there for a month and returning to Saint Louis. (Spectrum News/Brian McInnis)

“I still have very dear friends here and it was just a better situation for me back at Saint Louis,” Hale said, a moment after being greeted warmly by Punahou baseball legend Pal Eldredge. “I love coaching the Saint Louis guys and Darren (Matsuda) does a good job here. It was just one of those things that happened.”

The Crusaders came out with a different energy at both ends from a 48-40 loss at the Crusaders’ gym two weeks ago, Fernando felt.

Punahou, which has navigated the tough ILH schedule well, especially against the league’s elite frontcourt players, uncharacteristically shot four air balls in the first quarter.

“We know they can shoot, so we just want to make them have to work for the shot. And you can get out of them and they can still hit it, they’re that good,” Hale said. “But we just wanted to make sure if they shoot us out from 3, so be it, as long as we close them out and get our hands up. We just needed to get rebounds if they miss.”

Matsuda’s Buffanblu used the chaos in the late game to get the deficit down to 45-35 with 2:45 to play before the Crusaders ended the threat.

“I mean, when we were sped up, that’s when we start making mistakes and getting all the turnovers,” Fernando said. “We had to keep our composure real tight. We couldn’t let the game slip out of our hands.”

Forward James Taras led Punahou with 17 points.

Brian McInnis covers the state’s sports scene for Spectrum News Hawaii. He can be reached at brian.mcinnis@charter.com.

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