Kuehu comes back fresh


POSTED: Friday, October 30, 2009

Putting her name down on a piece of paper wasn't enough.

There needed to be something tangible. Something that marked a new chapter in her life, and a willingness to let go of the frustrations that preceded it.

So Shawna-Lei Kuehu, one of the best Hawaii girls prep basketball players of all time, dropped the “;Lei”; from her first name when she signed with the Hawaii Rainbow Wahine over the summer.

“;It's something different in college now,”; she reasoned. “;My game's going to be different. My experiences are going to be different. Why not start different, you know?”;

With that, the once-dominant hoops force known as Shawna Kuehu course-corrected and set out again toward her collegiate destiny.


AFTER LEADING Punahou to its third state title in four years in 2008, the 5-foot-10 Kuehu, one of the state's most highly recruited athletes, dropped off the basketball map. She signed a letter of intent to play at California for 2008-09, but things never materialized with the Golden Bears and Kuehu remained at home, content to navigate a catamaran as a full-time job at Kaneohe Bay.

All the all-state accolades didn't matter. That she was the three-time Star-Bulletin Player of the Year (2005, '06, '08) didn't matter. That she has the state tournament scoring record of 37 points in the 2006 championship didn't matter, nor did her final prep performance of 20 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in '08 to complete a return from a devastating knee injury as a junior.

“;I pretty much took a break from it. It was kind of getting overwhelming,”; she said.

But gradually, family and friends warmed her to the idea of a comeback.

; Once Kuehu was released from her commitment to Cal, UH's then-acting head coach Pat Charity laid the groundwork for her arrival in Manoa. When Dana Takahara-Dias was hired to replace head coach Jim Bolla this summer, Takahara-Dias closed the deal to bring in the most important Wahine recruit in years.

“;I think I always had that support, my family and my friends,”; Kuehu said. “;But it was mainly me and my decision. I had to really think of what was good, and what I wanted.”;


FORMER WAHINE great Nani Cockett was of particular influence in bringing Kuehu around.

Since January, Cockett mentored the former star on and off the court, offering up tips in working her way back to top basketball form and life lessons to steer her back toward an education.

In the D.One Women's NCAA Summer League, the youth proved she could still dominate, hitting 3s, stealing the ball in the open court and generally stuffing stat sheets. She even blocked her twin sister, Idaho's Shaena-Lyn Kuehu, once from behind on a fast break. (The sisters will meet on opposing college teams on Jan. 13 for the first time at the Stan Sheriff Center).

As a way of thanks, Kuehu elected to wear Cockett's No. 20 for the green and white.

“;We became really close, someone I trust,”; Kuehu said. “;She's told me about her experiences. For her helping me get back into it, that's why I wear her number — to represent her when she played, and bring it back.”;

Getting the Wahine back to a perennial winner, ala the Vince Goo days, won't be easy for Takahara-Dias or her freshman star-to-be; the Wahine went 8-23 last year for their most single-season losses in program history. The only new blood on the team besides Kuehu is junior college transfer Julita Bungaite and walk-on Mai Ayabe, and UH unexpectedly lost key starters for 2009-10 in deep threat Megan Tinnin (family reasons) and center Sarah Ilic (ineligibility).


TAKAHARA-DIAS is grateful to have her former Team Aloha all-star pupil there to fill the void in the team's new up-and-down attack. She envisions playing the versatile Kuehu anywhere from the 1 to the 4 (point guard through power forward) as needed by holes or foul trouble in the Wahine lineup.

And yes, Kuehu realizes she'll have to take her game outside much more than her days of post dominance in high school.

“;When she steps onto the floor, you're going to see a lot of moxie, and just sheer will,”; said the coach, who has observed Kuehu to be a diligent student. “;Because sitting out for one year did make her hungry, did make her appreciate that she has a gift. And now she has the opportunity to actually implement the gift. So she's not gonna waste any time.”;

Junior point guard Keisha Kanekoa and her Honokaa Dragons played against Kuehu's Buffanblu once in the state tournament, falling in lopsided fashion to the eventual champs in 2005. Now, she relishes the chance to thread passes on the fast break to her new wingmate.

“;She's very smart with the ball, and moving without the ball,”; Kanekoa said. “;You'll find her scoring a lot, I think, this season. She'll get herself open, she'll take big shots. She can score inside, outside.”;

IN THE END for Shawna Kuehu, it comes down to sending a message about the potential for girls basketball players in Hawaii.

“;I get a chance to represent the state like any other local girl,”; Kuehu said, who will be a key part of the exhibition opener vs. Hawaii Pacific on Wednesday. “;Out here, kind of putting Hawaii back on the map because the girls down here can play. It's just letting everybody else see that. I need to represent them. It's every girl's dream to play in the Stan Sheriff Center.

“;To play there full-time, it's just like, wow.”;