RONEN ZILBERMAN / RZILBERMAN@STARBULLETIN.COM|
Kalaheo's Theo Fujita, William Elliott, Sam Wilhoite, Neil Bowers and Matt Nakashima lead the Mustangs into the state basketball tournament. Kalaheo (13-1) takes on the winner of the McKinley-Kamehameha game tomorrow at 5:45 p.m. at the Blaisdell Arena.
Mustangs’ supporting cast
grabs spot on center stage
The Kalaheo basketball team
no longer has to depend on star
center Sam Wilhoite to win
Some things have to be worked out. Others have to be waited out.
So while those in Hawaii high school basketball circles have been speculating on whether Kalaheo standout Sam Wilhoite's supporting cast could hold its own in a big game, the 6-foot-7 center never had a doubt.
"What I've known they could do all along, the rest of the state is beginning to see now," Wilhoite said of his teammates. "We've played together so long I knew it was only a matter of time before they clicked."
Even so, Wilhoite casts a considerable shadow. But while the 2004 Oahu Interscholastic Association's season was Wilhoite's playground, the Mustangs' four other starters -- Theo Fujita, Neil Bowers, Will Elliott and Matt Nakashima -- held court in February.
As Kalaheo (13-1) prepares to play the McKinley-Kamehameha winner tomorrow (5:45 p.m.) in the quarterfinals of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association/Hawaiian Airlines tournament at the Blaisdell Arena, Wilhoite's teammates once again hold the key to the Mustangs' fate. Since a loss to East rival Kaimuki last month, their contributions have lifted the second-seeded Mustangs to eight wins in a row.
"We're on a mini-run," Kalaheo coach Chico Furtado said. "We've had a lot more balance, and that's going to be important for us. It's something we've been striving for because teams obviously key on Sam."
With that in mind, Furtado estimates that the Mustangs have faced a zone 90 percent of the time this season -- a welcome sight of late for Fujita, who poured in 21 points in last Friday's OIA championship game against Mililani. He has been in a shooting zone since the stretch run of the OIA season, overcoming an injury at midseason.
"A lot of teams have been zoning us, so there have been a lot of opportunities to shoot 3-pointers," Fujita said. "Hopefully it will work out in states. We're all scoring more. We're all playing solid, and we know our roles."
Among nightly assignments, Bowers draws the toughest task. At 6-foot-1, he is usually assigned to guard the opposition's best forward, giving away a few inches in nearly every encounter. A wide receiver on the football team, he's in the trenches, so to speak, on the basketball court.
"Neil is a coach's dream," Fujita said.
"I get more contact in basketball than I did in football," Bowers said. "Coach doesn't expect points from me, although he gives me the green light to shoot. He expects me to hold my guy down. He always tells me before a game, 'I challenge you to do this ... .' "
Bowers, Fujita, Nakashima and Wilhoite have played together since the seventh grade, when they were classmates at Kailua Intermediate and remain close off the court. Although Elliott didn't begin attending school in the community until his freshman year, he was well known to the group and was a welcome addition.
"We always had the chemistry," Bowers said. "The last month has been about confidence, especially in our shooting. That's helped us come together, and Sam has more confidence in us, too."
Said Wilhoite: "When we've played in big games, they've definitely stepped it up, and everyone coming in off of the bench is contributing good minutes. I always had confidence in them, but it's true they've been playing with a lot more confidence as of late."
The last week of the regular season saw the Mustangs score two of their most gratifying wins.
In their 74-61 overtime victory over Kahuku on Feb. 3, Fujita tallied 13 points in the final moments of regulation and the extra session to finish with a career-high 26 points.
Four nights later, it was Elliott who delivered the knockout punch for the Mustangs, scoring 14 points in the second quarter (including four 3-pointers) in his team's 75-45 win at McKinley.
"Sam's been carrying the load since November, and it's hard to do that," Elliott said. "When we have opportunities, we have to step up so we're not one-dimensional. That's what we were in November.
"The concept of team has been more emphasized as we've gotten closer to the state tournament," he said. "There was a time in the Kahuku game when we really had to pull together if we were going to win.
"It's not just the starters. (Guards) Chris (Tumaneng) and David (Moore) give us a spark off of the bench."
The game regarded by the Mustangs as the turning point of their season was the loss to Kaimuki. Aside from Wilhoite's 26 points, no other Mustang finished in double figures that night.
"It was a slap in the face because we were expecting to win the game," Elliott said. "We had to go back and work harder. A lot of us have just made up our minds to win. And to leave everything on the court. No excuses. What it boils down to is who plays harder and smarter."
Nakashima believes the cornerstone of Kalaheo's success is defense.
"We want to keep that tradition going," he said. "If we can get the stops, it will make things easier on our offense.
"We always have Sam for scoring, and Will and Theo have been hitting big shots, but right now, we're playing a lot better defensively.
"Offensively, the key is to hit some outside shots early to open it up for Sam. To be able to get him the ball, we have to hit shots."