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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Sabers look to silence foes

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ma'afu Finau (34), Tevita Finau (44), Gene Rivera (35) and coach Bill Naylor have taken the Maui Sabers to a 26-0 record heading into the Hawaiian Airlines Boys State Championship basketball tournament.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

Nestled between majestic Haleakala and the rugged West Maui Mountains, the state's most intriguing high school boys basketball team has been shielded from most of Hawai'i for three months.

At 4 p.m. Thursday, however, the undefeated — and, some say, untested — Maui Sabers finally will be unveiled for everyone to see at Blaisdell Arena. The No. 2-seeded Sabers, who cruised to a 14-0 record in the Maui Interscholastic League and are 26-0 overall, will play the winner of tomorrow's first game of the Hawaiian Airlines Boys State Basketball Championship tournament between Leilehua and Waimea.

Although Maui did not qualify for last year's tournament, people who were there in 2002 got a glimpse of the kind of talent the Sabers have. That's because two of their main weapons, brothers Ma'afu and Tevita Finau, played for MIL champion Lahainaluna in the tournament and dazzled fans with their stunning athleticism.

Ma'afu is a 6-foot-4 senior and Tevita is a 6-5 junior. Both can run the floor and jump surprisingly well for their size. Now they have added a variety of post moves under the tutelage of Maui coach Bill Naylor, who played on the University of Hawai'i-Hilo's glory teams of the late 1970s.

The Sabers have another agile big man in 6-4 junior Gene Rivera, a forward who actually took over point guard duties earlier this season when injuries struck the team's best ball-handlers. Maui even has a good-sized two-guard in 6-foot senior Van Komatsu, and although point guard Efren Oasay is only 5-5, he is yet another threat.

"He's quick, he can run and he can hit the 3," Naylor said. "That's the thing about this year's team: Everybody is fitting into the scheme. We like to run, but we have a lot of guys who can score at any time and from anywhere on the floor."

Naylor said the talent goes beyond the starting five. The bench includes 5-7 guard Robinson Agdinaoay, who started last season, and forwards Kynan Metoyer (6-1), Dane Patao (5-10) and Jansen Estrada (6-0).

"We have nine solid guys who could rotate into the lineup," Naylor said.

The results have been eye-catching. The Sabers blazed through the MIL season, winning all but one game by at least 10 points. Maui's closest game was a 68-59 victory at Moloka'i, and it wrapped up the championship by defeating runner-up Baldwin 76-36.

The Sabers, however, remain a mystery to many fans because they have played only three other Hawai'i teams outside the MIL, including just one from O'ahu. That was Farrington, which finished 1-9 in its regular season.

Maui defeated Big Island Interscholastic Federation runner-up Waiakea by 19 points and trounced Hilo 90-46 in the St. Joseph's tournament. Waiakea has only one senior, and Hilo struggled through one of its worst BIIF seasons in two decades.

In other preseason games, the Sabers defeated three California teams — American (Fremont), East Lake (San Diego) and Elsinore. Maui beat American and East Lake each by about 15 points, but needed a 3-pointer by Oasay with two seconds remaining to edge Elsinore, 51-50.

Naylor said Elsinore had won its league title six of the past seven years. The Sabers also played a couple of Canadian teams during Christmas break.

Other than that, Maui's unprecedented success has been achieved against MIL teams.

But word eventually did spread about the Sabers, who have been ranked No. 2 in The Advertiser's weekly statewide poll of coaches and media since early January. No. 1 seed Iolani sent two different assistants to the Valley Isle to scout Maui in the final two weekends.

The reports seem to confirm what fans and sportswriters there have been saying all along: These guys are for real.

"Their inside game is strong, but they run an up-tempo offense," Iolani coach Mark Mugiishi said. "They'll rebound and limit the other team to one shot, and then they'll throw the quick outlet and push it up the floor."

The big question surrounding Maui, of course, is the level of its competition so far. The question will be answered on Thursday, since the Sabers will play either O'ahu Interscholastic Association runner-up Leilehua (11-2) or Kaua'i Interscholastic Federation champion Waimea (8-0).

And it's a question they are ready to answer.

"We're eager," Naylor said. "This has been our goal from the beginning of the year."