Tuakoi gets last shot

LAHAINA – Petiola Tuakoi knows this is it.

Lahainaluna High School has been to the last four final fours at the Hawaiian Airlines Division I Girls Basketball State Championship, including a historic title in 2010, but the Lunas’ 6-foot center has played in the semifinals just once.

Tuakoi took responsibility for missing trips last season and as a freshman – when the Lunas became the first Maui Interscholastic League D-I team to cut down the nets.

“Last year was grades, my freshman year I got into some trouble,” she said Monday before her final practice in the Lunas’ gym. “So, this week is really big. This is make or break. For me, this is make or break.”

Tuakoi knows she will not follow in the footsteps of Fatai Halaapiapi or Milika Taufa – the two prominent centers immediately before her at Lahainaluna – to an NCAA Division I team directly out of high school, but she has made strides to get there one day.

“I will be going to a (junior college), probably in California, close to home,” Tuakoi said.

Tuakoi’s last state tournament will begin today, when the fourth-seeded Lunas play Iolani at the McKinley gym.

“I have learned a lot from basketball,” she said. “It’s really big – responsibility, time management and just to work hard. Work ethic, it has taught me that, a really good work ethic, and taught me how to work with different girls, different personalities.”

She is trying to pass along the lessons learned to younger teammates, including the likely next player in the pivot, freshman Keleah-Aiko Koloi, who next season will try to extend the Lunas’ streaks of nine straight MIL titles and 87 consecutive league wins.

“She has to be strong in the paint, she can’t take it personal when people try to push her around, she just has to back them down and she has to do her thing as a low-post player,” Tuakoi said of Koloi. “Grades, too. That’s definitely one of the things I stress to a lot of the younger girls.”

Tuakoi laughs when asked how her grades are this year.

“They’re better, a lot better than last year,” she said.

Tuakoi spent the summer on the Mainland, and had a 4.0 grade-point average in the first academic quarter at Foothill (Calif.) High School. The second semester at Lahainaluna, it was 2.3.

Teammates Amanda Matsuda and Jade Chihara, both of whom own state gold medals from 2010, know they can count on their center this week.

“This team definitely has the potential to win a state title, if we can play as a team and not individuals, we can definitely win. We have our big girl back in the middle, too,” Matsuda said.

Chihara – who plans to continue her career at Smith College, a Division III school in Massachusetts – said: “Peti is going to step up, I know she is a great player, and she is going to be a great factor and it’s so awesome to have her back this year. Her game is on top, but her presence, like, she’s big. That presence is so meaningful to us.”

The Lunas are 29-5 this season, and the losses are all to state-tournament teams – top-seeded Konawaena, No. 2 seed Kamehameha Kapalama and No. 3 Leilehua, as well as Roosevelt and Maryknoll.

“It was very competitive,” Rickard said. “I think we learned a lot: No. 1, you have got to finish the game. All those games we had leads, every one of them.”

Rickard anticipates Tuakoi making a big contribution.

“I expect a lot,” he said. “We wish we had her last year, we needed her. This year, we have her, we have no excuses. I think missing last year is definitely eating her up. You look at her, look in her eyes, she looks focused, she looks like she’s ready to go.”

* Robert Collias is at