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Maui player helps American Samoa win gold

Hannemann-Gago

Mahina Hannemann-Gago hadn’t played competitive basketball since graduating from Brigham Young University-Hawaii in 2010. That didn’t stop her from getting back on the court last month and helping the American Samoa women’s national team to gold.

Hannemann-Gago, an associate athletic director at Kamehameha Schools Maui, totaled 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight steals over five games at the Pacific Games in Apia, Samoa.

Her efforts helped American Samoa defeat defending champion Fiji 74-53 in the tournament’s championship game on July 17. American Samoa was runner-up to Fiji in the 2015 Pacific Games — this year’s event featured over 4,000 athletes from Pacific nations competing in 27 sports.

“This was the first time I’ve played competitively like that since graduating. … I felt it in my legs,” the 32-year-old Hannemann-Gago said with a laugh. “I would go play with the high school girls (at Kamehameha), but that is nothing compared to that high-caliber basketball. … Physically it was hard, but mentally it was fun because you just go and play your sport again.”

During Hannemann-Gago’s 10-year break, she spent time in South Dakota earning her masters degree and doctorate, coaching college basketball, becoming a high school administrator, and finally, associate athletic director for the Warriors.

Mahina Hannemann-Gago (center) stands next to teammates during a timeout during the Pacific Games last month. SPG Association photos

However, once the American Samoa basketball administration asked her to compete for them, she quickly said “yes.”

The Pacific Games basketball tournament started with the group phase, which the 12-player American Samoa team dominated, sweeping Guam (85-76), Tahiti (85-61) and Papua New Guinea (100-41). American Samoa then advanced to the championship with an 83-49 win over Samoa in the semifinals.

In the final, American Samoa led 24-13 to finish the first quarter and by halftime, Fiji closed the gap to 30-28 by drawing three fouls and adding a few jump shots.

“I was nervous to start the game, but once we reached the second quarter of our game, I knew we had it,” Hannemann-Gago recalled. “Out there, it was very different versions of play. Like, it’s very fundamental-based in the islands, but then us, we’re just used to a fast-paced environment. It was just completely different. It was just a really good advantage for us.”

American Samoa extended their lead to 52-44 in the third quarter and kept the momentum through the final buzzer.

The American Samoa women’s basketball team celebrate atop the podium with their gold medals.

Former University of Hawaii-Manoa player Sarah Toeaina led the team with 29 points and 12 rebounds. UH’s Leah Salanoa added 14 points and six rebounds, while University of Utah alum Malia Nawahine had four steals.

“Our first game, it was really only our family that was in the crowd, but once people started to see how good we were, our games were pretty crowded,” Hannemann-Gago said. “Even into the gold-medal game, there were people just everywhere.”

While forming its national team, the American Samoa Olympic Committee selected players with ancestral ties to the nation based on college experience, and by evaluating game footage and contacting coaches. Players also needed to be cleared by FIBA.

Hannemann-Gago fit the bill.

“They wanted to build this dream team, so to speak, and American Samoa has never won a gold medal,” she said. “There was a lot that went into it. So, once you got cleared, it was like, ‘here’s your ticket.’ Very similar to college recruiting.”

Hannemann-Gago added that it was not only the players’ first time visiting Samoa, but also the first time the American Samoa basketball team had athletes outside of the local population.

“They didn’t know us coming from the states, so we were very underrated,” she said. “We beat teams in our pool by 30 or so points … and when we started getting into the medal round, everyone still thought we were going to lose.”

Despite the team only practicing together for six days prior to the tournament in July, Hannemann-Gago said that they still had a strong team dynamic.

“It was such a good experience all around,” she said.

As the top two qualifiers, Fiji and American Samoa have booked their tickets to the Division B of the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup, set for Sept. 22-29 in India. From there, the top teams will advance to one of two tournaments that will decided the Asia/Oceania representatives for next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

While it’s still up in the air for Hannemann-Gago about playing at the next competition, she knows for a fact she’ll remain connected with the American Samoa team.

“Once you come in as an athlete, they like to keep us involved, either as recruiting or even come back as coaches,” she added. “So you can still stay involved, not just as a player. They like to keep it like a tight-knit community. We’ll all stay involved one way or another.”

Hannemann-Gago plans to help expose Maui athletes to the next level of sports by connecting them to recruiters and by sharing her experience from the Pacific Games.

“For all of us, it was our first time coming to Samoa, American Samoa, let alone being able to represent our countries, but it was the first time we’ve been there,” she said. “So coming together as a team and that experience alone, was something that was bigger than the sport of basketball.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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