Sophomore guard Leiah Naeata fuels Kahuku's rise to the top of OIA girls basketball standings
JAMM AQUINO/ JAN. 24
Leiah Naeata scored 33 points in helping Kahuku dethrone Kalani for the OIA title.
Off the court, she is a scholarly pupil with a sparkly smile and easy-going manner. On the basketball court, Leiah Naeata takes no prisoners. The 5-foot-7 sophomore leads a young Kahuku team with ease, with vigor — with wisdom. She also plays fast with a certain fury that never ceases. Kahuku’s unbeaten season in the Oahu Interscholastic Association capped off with a stunning 63-59 win over Kalani on Thursday. Naeata had 33 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a performance befitting a concert maestro more than basketball star. Naeata fouled out with 1:10 left, but her Lady Raider teammates protected a two-point lead under pressure. Sharpshooting guard Maya Claytor took over the point guard responsibilities. Aja Tapusoa, Tati Kamae and Meleane Tonga clutched up on both ends. “People doubted us, but we just used it as fuel. We stayed calm and we pulled it out. God was on our side and we pulled out the win,” Naeata said. Her 33 points ranks third in OIA girls basketball championship game history, only behind Brandy Richardson of Kalaheo, who scored 41 points in the 2001 final and 35 in the ’00 final. There are all kinds of aspects to Kahuku’s 14-0 perfection that counter any assumptions about what Naeata is as a player and leader. She’s a point guard who has improved her 3-point accuracy immensely — two 3-pointers splashed in against Kalani — and innately knows the right time to distribute the ball, then head directly to the block to post-up smaller, weaker defenders. “She gained a lot experience as a freshman, playing every single game to the end,” Kahuku coach Latoya Wily said. “She’s beginning to understand her role as a leader even as a sophomore. She creates, she understands when the help (defense) comes, she trusts in her teammates to finish. It’s look up, lift up. Somebody’s down, they’ll all go, ‘Hey, you’ve got the next one.’ They understand that they need each other.” Naeata lives by her team’s motto. “Look up, lift up is very important, especially in games like we had a couple of days ago. It was very important to look up and lift up, especially with me fouling out. I knew my teammates would pull out the win,” she said. Naeata is a matchup nightmare, and Kahuku has evolved into a team that has pinpoint passing and smart ballhandling, possibly its best executing halfcourt offense since the state-championship teams of ’04 and ’05, when Coach Wily (’04) was a double-double force in the paint. “Nowadays, a lot of people are all about the 3-point shot, but I was taught since I was young to work down in the post, get rebounds, and as I grew up I worked my shot out,” Naeata said. Coach Chi Mok saw his Kalani squad win the OIA title in 2018, but Naeata was a gem shining for Kahuku as a freshman. “Leiah’s improvement has been gradual. I’ve been watching her from eighth grade on,” he said. “She has gotten stronger, faster and her confidence really shows with her growth. The thing that she has now over last year is she has an outside shot to go along with her attacking the rim.” Naeata grew up playing roundball with dad, Ford, as her coach when she was 4. By 11, she joined the boys team at Laie Park and her game was eternally transformed. That team included current Kahuku boys varsity players Shon Reid and Daniel Kaio. “They really shaped me into the player I am. They roughed me up, I’d say. They gave me that rough exterior that I needed, which helped the way I play now. At Laie Park, there’s no such thing as a foul,” she said. There are two movies that get lots of play in Naeata’s free time. Mulan has been her all-time favorite character since she was a young girl, and it fits her sunny persona off the court. “She would sing that song all the time and watch the DVD over and over,” said her dad, Ford. Naeata was 5 when she picked up a pair of scissors and attempted to give herself a Mulan hairdo. It turned out just a bit uneven. “Mom was furious. It was all crooked,” Ford recalled. “I cut my hair real short and I got yelled at for it,” Naeata recalled. “My dad didn’t like it. He doesn’t like it when I cut my hair.” Ask her about time travel, and Naeata would go back 18 years, before she was born. “Believe it or not, I would take the time machine and travel back to 2001 when the ‘Fast and the Furious’ movie franchise started,” Naeata said. “And meet (the late) Paul Walker, who is my favorite male actor, and ask him to talk to the director to give me a part in this movie, my favorite movie franchise other than Mulan.” Kahuku has started to resemble past title teams, in D-I and D-II, that featured guards like Camilla Ah-Hoy, Karla Tailele and Artevia Wily. Kahuku has until next week Thursday to prepare for the state tourney. “We are going to buckle down on the things that aren’t perfect. There’s ILH, the Big Island teams, and it’s a different level of play,” Naeata said. ‘There’s better shooters. There’s attackers that are just as strong as me or even stronger. We need to buckle down on the little things. Little things make the biggest difference.” LEIAH NAEATA Kahuku basketball • Sophomore Q&A AND FAVORITES >> Athlete: Dwayne Wade. >> Team: Chicago Bulls. >> Food (at home): Anything my mom (Leialoha) makes. Steak and onions. I can’t make it as good as my mom and grandma (Leialoha Finai). >> Food (eating out): Cake noodles at Laie Chop Suey. We always go there every Friday. >> Hobby: I would love to say reading, but I’m not a reader. Swimming and spending time with my family. >> Movie: Mulan and Fast and the Furious. >> TV show: Hawaii Five-0. >> Video game: Call of Duty, Black Ops 3. Me and my dad have competitions. He’s the sniper and I have the machine gun. >> Music artist: Ne-Yo. My favorite song is “So Sick.” >> Teacher: Mrs. Stewart at Laie Elementary. She got me to love going to school. She helped me fix my grammar and she made me love reading books. She retired a long time ago. >> Class: Culinary. >> GPA: 3.8 (current), 3.7 cumulative. If I get a 4.0, my parents give me a high five and take me to (Laie) Chop Suey.