Leilehua snaps 36-year title drought, stuns Mililani late in OIA Division I Boys’ Basketball championship

Leilehua snaps 36-year title drought, stuns Mililani late in OIA Division I Boys’ Basketball championship

The Leilehua Mules pose as OIA champions on the hardwood in boys’ basketball for the first time since 1988. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

Leilehua snaps 36-year title drought, stuns Mililani late in OIA Division I Boys’ Basketball championship

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED FEB 14, 2024

HONOLULU — Long time coming. 

The Leilehua Mules won the program’s second-ever OIA basketball title Wednesday night behind senior Twain Wilson’s 25 points and the last-second heroics of reserve Trystin Stevens, snatching the OIA’s top division championship from the Mililani Trojans in a highly-anticipated rematch from the regular season, 49-48. 

The teams met just over two weeks prior, a sweaty 52-50 victory for Mililani to keep the Trojans unbeaten in league play while handing the Mules their first blemish against their own division all year. Despite the added motivation from falling on January 26, questions remained if the double-overtime win for Leilehua against Kailua on Monday night would prove costly in stamina against fast-paced Mililani.  

It certainly looked like Mililani was the fresher team to open the game as Ezekiel Virtudes found sophomore Timothy Dorn for an emphatic two-hand alley-oop dunk for the game’s first points before the lanky young forward quickly picked up his first block of the night on the other end. Leilehua’s offense sputtered along over the opening eight minutes, shooting a combined 5-of-16 for just 11 points. Luckily for the D1 West’s second-place regular season-finishers, the defensive side of the ball picked up the slack by forcing six Mililani turnovers to keep the Trojans from running away with the game quickly and while sending Leilehua into the second trailing by just two, 13-11.  

Mililani’s Dorn continued to impose his will in the painted area throughout the second quarter, impacting nearly every Leilehua shot attempt with his length as the Mules mustered just five points against the Trojans in the period, going into the break with the deficit from before tripled, 22-16. 

Suddenly, the switch flipped for Leilehua. 

The Mules exploded for 23 points in the third quarter, 15 from Wilson as the senior pushed Leilehua out in front by five by hitting big shot after big shot. The defense continued to strap down the Mililani offense on the other side, holding the Trojans to 12 points over the eight-minute period to flip the game on its head going into the fourth with Leilehua leading 39-34. 

Mililani did not quit, showing off the moxie that they had developed as the program made its third consecutive appearance in the OIA Division I championship game. Dorn provided his best Victor Wembanyama impression, scoring from all three levels while swatting away shot after shot to help tie the game at 46-all with just over a minute to play before Virtudes snatched the lead back for the Trojans with 23 seconds left, dropping home a transition teardrop floater to make it 48-46. 

Despite Mililani’s rapid comeback over the game’s final minutes, Leilehua remained calm trailing by two as head coach Chad Townsend drew up a play to get a look for his top scorer in Wilson. 

When play started, Mililani threw a double-team at Wilson to force the action. Instead of trying to force up a shot over the double, the senior calmly passed off to a wide-open Trystin Stevens in the left corner and Stevens delivered the goods, drilling the go-ahead triple with 5.3 seconds left. 

One last ditch effort resulted in a running three-point try by Dorn at the horn for Mililani, but the shot would fall short as Leilehua won the OIA title in boys’ basketball for the first time since 1988. 

“[Mililani HC Garrett Gabriel] does such a good job, I was running out of ideas of what to do against them … If we played 10 times, we would [win five and lose five] and I really believe that. I have the highest respect for that guy,” Townsend said following the Mules’ win. “Nothing but love for those guys. Very respectful, Mililani’s kids are great kids but I’m just happy that our kids pulled us through.” 

Speaking of great, Dorn solidified his star status among local hoopers in the loss by posting an obscene 20 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks in 29 minutes of action for Mililani. The Trojans’ top three-point shooter Roman Gabriel scratched out 10 points as the junior struggled shooting from the floor, going 0-of-4 from long range. 

Leilehua was led by Twain Wilson’s game-high 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting and 5-of-7 from three-point range while snatching nine boards and handing out four assists. The senior was awarded HSRN’s “YeahU HNL Player of the Game” honor for his performance. Stevens, who hit the biggest shot of the night for the Mules with 5.3 seconds to go, finished the game with seven points off the bench — all of which came in the second half. Tyree Wilson, Twain’s younger brother, added 10 points and two steals in the historic win for Leilehua. 

“It feels unreal,” Townsend expressed when asked about the program’s first title since the 1980s and second total. “Just for the community because as you can see there is such a great community, support to the end … I just couldn’t be more appreciative [of the Leilehua community].” 

Hallie’s (Bird)song: The crescendo of the Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine’s “Why”

Hallie’s (Bird)song: The crescendo of the Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine’s “Why”

Hallie’s (Bird)song: The crescendo of the Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine’s “Why”

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED JAN 17, 2024

HONOLULU – The University of Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine basketball team will enter the January 18 matchup against Long Beach State in a position that has become familiar over the past three seasons – near the very top of the Big West conference standings. 

In fact, success is something that ‘Bows fans have been accustomed to in head coach Laura Beeman’s tenure. The Rainbow Wahine snapped a 20-year absence from the NCAA Tournament in 2016, just four years after Beeman’s arrival. The year prior saw Beeman pilot the Rainbow Wahine to a 15-game win streak, the program’s longest string of wins since 1997-98, en route to a third consecutive appearance in the women’s National Invitational Tournament for UH. The CSU-San Bernardino alum would do it again in 2018, marking the fourth NIT invite for her program in six seasons. 

Close by, a local Kalani product watched intently as her state’s home school saw a revival of the women’s basketball program ahead of her high school career. For Hallie Birdsong, the University of Hawai’i was always her collegiate destination. Like basketball, UH was a shared passion amongst her family. 

Her dad is UH football great Norris Birdsong, who scored the first of many touchdowns by UH running backs inside the old Aloha Stadium. He and Birdsong’s uncle were also avid basketball players and fans, the UH junior said.  

Her dad took on duties of coaching the youthful hooper and “still coaches me now to this day,” she said cheerfully, joking that the old football player cannot help but continue to give instructions even now that she is a collegiate basketball player. 

Her dad’s coaching, coupled with a competitive nature of her own, led to a love of basketball for Birdsong. When younger brother, Norris Shaun Birdsong Jr., was introduced to her life, she saw a chance to improve her game while experiencing the thrill of being an older sister. 

“Now that he’s older and a lot bigger than me, I’d say our games of one-on-one are a lot more competitive,” UH’s junior guard laughed in a phone interview. “I’m just that big sister that’s always trying to push him and encourage him to be the best he can be.” 

Birdsong’s positivity manifests itself in many ways. In one, it makes her a great family member and friend to the inner circle that she credits for helping keep her so upbeat – serving as a constant bright light to those around her. After Hawai’i’s blowout win over CSUN on January 6 that saw Birdsong score her first collegiate bucket, Laura Beeman was sure to share how important the reserve guard has been to the team. 

“Seeing Hallie hit that pull-up jumper was very, very fun. Many games, she’s our “why” and she’s very humble about what she means to this program, but I think the reaction from the bench and the crowd kind of sums it up,” the veteran UH head coach said to the media about Birdsong after the Rainbow Wahine’s 67-38 win. 

That positivity is also what led to the Rainbow Wahine’s “Why” making the team in the first place. 

After four years of balling out in the OIA for Kalani, Birdsong looked to the next step with eyes on the biggest college in the state. As an underrecruited player with eyes on a spot within the Rainbow Wahine program, the 5-foot-7 guard knew that it would be a steep climb to reach her goals. 

“The program has a lot of history, has a deep legacy especially playing under Coach Laura Beeman and all she’s done,” Birdsong said. 

It had to start with a phone call to Beeman’s staff and a plea for a chance to try-out as a walk-on for Hawai’i, betting on herself, her work ethic and faith. Taking a “leap of faith” after being a self-admitted “late bloomer” growing up, it was a call that Birdsong is thankful for to this day. 

“I’m so blessed and thankful to have the opportunity [to play for UH],” the junior expressed. “I don’t regret [walking on] one bit.” 

While she may have been able to see more playing time at a lower division level (6 games played in 2.5 seasons at UH), the journey was about far more than what happened on the hardwood for her.  

Coming to the University of Hawai’i as a Biology major, Birdsong was interested in health from the start. After taking a couple of public health courses early in her stay at UH, she knew that a change in major was in the cards and promptly switched over to Public Health to pursue a long-term goal here at home. 

Birdsong’s switch to Public Health came with an interest in specifically helping and working with disadvantaged communities on O’ahu with a focus on maternal and children’s health. Those two courses she took opened her eyes to the different paths she could take to help others on her home island. She’s always wanted to do just that – help those around her. 

That is where it comes back to the court. With a team looking for a three-peat in the Big West tournament, Hawai’i has had a target on their back from the moment the season began. The Rainbow Wahine were selected first in the conference’s preseason poll after returning all but two players from last season’s NCAA tournament squad.  

Despite the accolades from the outside, Birdsong reminds that it is about focusing on the people within the locker room and none of the outside noise. That is how the ‘Bows have taken care of business the previous two seasons – not coincidentally the first two years that Birdsong has been a part of the program. 

Her playing time was not much but her impact on the team’s “amazing” culture helped continue cultivating an environment for players to feel comfortable with each other and root for another teammate’s success more than their own. In turn, a family feel remains within a program that has been built upon the foundation of selflessness. 

Birdsong’s bucket perhaps is the best example of this. As Hawai’i had a hearty lead late in the contest against CSU Northridge, well on their way to the program’s best start to conference play in Beeman’s tenure, every fan and player inside SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center remained locked into the action on the court as the junior walk-on entered play with 2:22 remaining. 

As teammates worked to get her a shot, Birdsong stayed ready. When her moment came, she let go of a pair of misses from her last outing and drilled a beautiful pull-up jumper to send the crowd (and her teammates) into a celebratory frenzy. 

It was a moment of exuberance for everyone within SSC but even more for Birdsong. 

A walk-on from the public schools on O’ahu, she made the OIA proud. Continuing to work despite knowing playing time would be scarce, Birdsong reminded herself that “just because something doesn’t go your way doesn’t mean it will always be like that.” 

It was finally time for things to go the junior’s way on the public stage. 

In the end, it also served as proof of concept to Birdsong: “Walk by faith, not by sight.” 

It is the quote she lives by every day of her life, allowing her to “keep [my] head high, eyes straight ahead and keep on walking” towards another storybook season with her Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine teammates.