Warrior Insider

The Inside Source for Hawaii Men's Basketball

Avea, Hepa carry on Warriors’ legacy of “local” talent

For those who grew up in these islands and/or have indigenous blood, something spiritual happens when slipping on the college basketball jersey with “HAWAI’I” emblazoned across the chest.

Photo courtesy Chris Kadooka

“It’s just an honor and a privilege to be able to put on that jersey every night,” said UH senior Samuta Avea, who grew up in Hau’ula and helped Kahuku High School win a state championship in 2017. “It’s hard to explain to people, what it means … especially being local and stuff. But those (players from Hawai’i) are the guys I grew up watching and looked up to. So hopefully I can help inspire the next.”

Kamaka Hepa, the Warriors’ other senior starter, grew up in Alaska but has Native Hawaiian heritage through his father, Roland, who is from Kaua’i. Hepa played at Texas for three years, but said representing Hawai’i is a different experience on many levels.

“It’s not really something you can describe, it’s just something that you feel once you do put that jersey on,” said Hepa, who said his paternal grandmother was a Native Hawaiian born and raised on Kaua’i. “Not only being able to represent the team and UH athletics, but also being able to represent the entire Native Hawaiian culture is really big for me.”

Avea and Hepa, who will play their final two home games against UC Riverside at 7 p.m. Thursday and UC Irvine at 5 p.m. Saturday, are the latest in a long line of “local” players starting or seeing significant game action for the Rainbows/Warriors in the past 35 years. The list is impressive, starting with Kawika Hallums (from Pearl City High School) in the 1987-88 and ’88-’89 seasons, followed by Jarinn Akana (Moloka’i, 1992-94), Kalia McGee (University High, 1992-95), Alika Smith (Kalaheo, 1994-98), Julian Sensley (Kalaheo, 2004-06), Bobby Nash (‘Iolani, 2003-2007) and Miah Ostrowski (Punahou, 2010-2012).

With the possible exception of Sensley and Nash in 2006, none of the previous local players shared as much court time together in the same season as Avea and Hepa have this year. Or have combined to be so productive.

Hepa has started all 28 games for the Warriors, who are 20-8 overall and 11-5 in the Big West Conference. The 6-foot-10 forward is second on the team in scoring (11.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.4 rpg), and is their top 3-point shooter with 58 triples made at a 40-percent clip.

Avea, a 6-6 wing, also has started all 28 games and is averaging 10.3 points and 4.7 boards per game. Hawai’i is 10-2 when he scores in double figures.

Photo courtesy Chris Kadooka

Hepa and Avea also are team co-captains, a role they take seriously and have fulfilled admirably, according to head coach Eran Ganot.

“Kamaka … I wish I could coach him for way more than two years,” Ganot said. “He’s a rising star, a late bloomer, look what he’s done in just two years of playing. Look at the jump he made from the year before he got here to his first year, and then this year. He’s incredible in the community, he’s obviously a tremendous student — graduated from Texas with a 3.9 (GPA) in three years. Doing a great job now for us … that’s what you want your program to be about.

“Samuta Avea — six years. Came back from back surgery. You knew early on this year it was going to be an adjustment because he hadn’t played games in three years (counting an opt-out year in 2020-21 and a medical redshirt in 2021-22). He hung in there when things weren’t so smooth, and naturally it shouldn’t be your first couple months (back), and now he’s playing his best basketball. I’m really happy for him.”

Ganot said Hepa, Avea and the third senior, Juan Munoz, exemplify the model student-athlete he tries to recruit.

“Those guys are a testament to what we’re trying to do in our program,” Ganot said. “You can feel their imprints all over our program, and beyond. Legacy is about leaving things better than you found it, and leaving an imprint when you’re gone. Those guys have done that at the highest level, in every way.”  

In Avea’s and Hepa’s cases, Ganot said the fact they have strong island ties is not insignificant.

“It’s an extra bonus, we take great pride in representing the state, that’s why we immerse ourselves in not just the history of our program, but the history of our state and giving back,” Ganot said. “We’ve gone to different parts of this island, to Kaua’i. You can feel how prideful they all are, because (of) how special Hawai’i is, the people here. But there’s also the added (aspect) when you have deeper roots here, in the case of Samuta and Kamaka. And they’re both doing it in every area — on the court, off the court, in the classroom. They’ve been very successful, kids look up to these guys, and they should.

“Those are the kind of guys we have brought in and will continue to bring in. But it hasn’t been often that we have two (starters) who have roots like that in the same year, and they’ve been tremendous for us. I’m just so happy for the kids in the community who get to watch those guys.”

For their part, Hepa and Avea feel blessed to play college basketball in the place they can truly call home.

“I have no second guessing, no second thoughts about the decision (to play for Hawai’i),” Hepa said. “It’s been a tremendous experience. It’s just something I’ve never really taken for granted, and I’m going to continue to be grateful for. It’s been great just having the opportunity to actually live out here like my father did when he was growing up, it’s been awesome. I’m definitely going to miss it a lot, I’ve probably only got about four or five more months out here, so I’m just going to continue to cherish that and continue to take advantage of this wonderful weather, the great food, great people, and just great places to be on this island.

“It’s far exceeded any expectations that I had, for sure, both the basketball aspect of it and just the lifestyle of being able to live out here and the friends that I’ve made. It’s just been hard to put into words the time that I’ve had here.”

For Avea, the steady in-person support he has received from parents Sielu and Sharla during and after every home game throughout his career is something unique. This season, his folks even upgraded to courtside seats behind the baseline near the visiting team’s bench to cherish every moment.

“Having my parents courtside, I think they realize, ‘Hey, this is it,’ ” Avea said. “I always wake up (on game day) to a text from Mom and Dad, separate, individually, ‘Good luck.’ They know I have my routine, things that I do throughout the day, so they don’t really hit me up too much. They (leave Hau’ula), stop at Zippy’s, and then they head on their way (to Manoa) from Kane’ohe.”

Avea said although Kahuku is nationally known for its football program, he hopes his basketball success has shown that college hoops can be another option for those looking for one.

“I’d like to think so,” Avea said. “It’s obvious we have the athletes, and they’re obviously really good at football, so I’m not trying to change anything that they got going on. But if anybody is playing basketball because they’ve watched a game of mine … that would make my year.”

— — — — —


Kawika Hallums (1987-89)

Former Pearl City quarterback and All-State forward became UH’s starting point guard who led the nation’s biggest turnaround, from a 4-25 record in 1988 to a 17-13 record and NIT first round appearance in 1989. He led the Warriors in assists as a junior and senior, and averaged 4.1 assists per game for his career. Hallums is now a television commentator for UH basketball and football broadcasts on Spectrum Sports. He is also credited with the “This is better than statehood” quote after UH’s road upset at BYU in 1989.

Jarinn Akana (1992-94)

The State Player of the Year as a senior at Moloka’i High School scored a combined 44 points in two games against North Carolina and helped UH earn its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 22 years in 1994. He was voted the team’s Most Inspirational Player as a senior in 1994. Akana also became the first men’s basketball player to receive the prestigious Jack Bonham Award in 1994 as the top student-athlete at UH for that year.

Kalia McGee (1992-95)

All-star guard from University High made his way across the street to become a starting point guard for the Warriors. He is ranked No. 4 on UH career assists list with 392. After his senior season in 1995, he was ranked No. 2 on that list, behind only Troy Bowe. McGee was in the starting lineup and recorded five assists when the Warriors faced Syracuse in the opening round of the 1994 NCAA Tournament. He was voted the team’s Best Playmaker three times – 1992, ’94 and ’95. One of the most famous shots in UH basketball history – Tes Whitlock’s off-balance running shot at the buzzer to beat BYU at the Stan Sheriff Center in 1995 – came off a McGee assist.

Alika Smith (1994-98)

The State Player of the Year as a senior at Kalaheo was a three-time All-State guard and pitcher/first baseman from Kalaheo. He became one of the best shooters/scorers in Hawai’i basketball history. He ranks No. 3 on Hawai’i’s all-time scoring list, with 1,415 points and recorded 25 games of 20 points or more during his career.

At the end of his UH career in 1998, he was the program’s career leader for 3-pointers made with 161 (he now ranks No. 6 on that list). He also ranks No. 3 on Hawai’i’s all-time steals list with 152. He scored a game-high 22 points in UH’s epic upset of No. 2 Kansas in 1997. He was part of the “Dynamic Duo” with Anthony “AC” Carter that played before 12 sellout crowds at the Stan Sheriff Center during the 1997-98 season.

Julian Sensley (2004-06)

An All-State forward as a sophomore and junior at Kalaheo High, he then enrolled at a prep school in Connecticut and became a top national recruit. After stops at various schools, he signed with Hawai’i as a collegiate sophomore and went on to become one of the top all-around performers in UH basketball history.

He was named first team All-WAC forward as a senior in 2006, and is still ranked in the career top 10 for both scoring (1,230 points) and rebounding (598). As a three-year starter for the Warriors he averaged 13.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game for his career.

Bobby Nash (2003-07)

Former All-State forward from ‘Iolani signed with Hawai’i and became the “son” portion of the greatest father-son combination in UH basketball history. His father, Bob Nash, was the Associate Head Coach when Bobby signed with UH, and eventually became head coach of the Warriors in 2008 – Bobby’s senior season. Bobby scored 1,022 points during his UH career, and is one of 16 players to reach the 1,000-point mark. He also ranks No. 9 on the school’s career list for 3-pointers with 142. During his senior season in 2007-08, he set a UH record for free throw percentage at .879. That mark now ranks third all-time.

Miah Ostrowski (2010-12)

Former All-State point guard and football receiver from Punahou initially signed with UH to play football, then played both basketball and football at UH during his junior and senior seasons. He led the WAC and was No. 6 in the nation in assists per game (7.0) as a senior in 2011-12. That mark for assists per game still ranks No. 3 for a single season at UH. He had a memorable moment during his junior season, when he recorded 15 points and six assists in a near-upset of No. 25 Utah State, just four days after the death of his father.

Leave a Response

Login or fill in the fields below to comment. (New user? Register)