March 8, 2024 

How Hawaii’s Lily Wahinekapu joined 1,000-point club, even as she became more of a facilitator

Wahinekapu's all-around game has helped Hawaii secure the top seed in the Big West Tournament

Reaching 1,000 career points is no easy task. Being a prolific scorer in college basketball means having defenses designed to slow you down each game. For some players, that doesn’t matter. They’re still going to get buckets. Such is the case for Hawaii junior guard Lily Wahinekapu.

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Wahinekapu is in her second season with the Rainbow Wahine and recently eclipsed the 1,000-point mark. Not only that, but her strong play has Hawaii atop the Big West Conference as the regular season winds down.

While Wahinekapu is focused on finishing the regular season strong, she took a moment to reflect on reaching such a big milestone.

“I was very happy that I was able to accomplish a goal that I set out coming into playing college basketball,” Wahinekapu told The Next. “It just felt really good finally getting 1,000. I have to set new goals now to stay hungry.”

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Sometimes one person’s loss is another person’s gain, and that’s certainly been the case for Hawaii. Wahinekapu began her college basketball career at Cal State Fullerton, where she played for one season.

She made an immediate impact as a freshman, starting all 29 games and leading the Titans in scoring (14.7 points per game) and assists (3.7). She was named the Big West Freshman of the Year and was on a trajectory to become one of the top guards in the conference.

Wahinekapu hit the transfer portal, though, after her freshman year. She opted to return home to Hawaii, where she grew up and played her high school years. She longed to be closer to her family and rejoin her sister, Jovi Lefotu, who is also on the Rainbow Wahine roster.

“I had a lot of opportunities going into the portal, but my main focus was coming back home to play. I’m a really big family person and I just love Hawaii,” Wahinekapu said. “I get [to] play in front of my family every single weekend. The main thing was being with my family and my sister. … Being with her was big part of my decision to come back home and play.”

While many players have benefited from the transfer portal, it’s caused a bit of a commotion in the college basketball world. It’s become almost like the NCAA’s version of free agency in professional sports. But there’s no denying that it’s helped college basketball players take more control over their own careers.

Wahinekapu’s experience with the portal was positive, although she acknowledges how much tougher it’s made recruiting for high school players.

“It’s good in a sense for us players, but I know that it’s causing some tough situations for high schoolers coming into college,” Wahinekapu said. “You get to experience more than one program. Sometimes you don’t always fit in with program that you’re in or you just need something new. I feel like it’s really good for players.”

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Transferring to Hawaii has certainly had a major impact on Wahinekapu’s on-court play. At Cal State Fullerton, she initially took on more of a scoring role. But since joining the Rainbow Wahine, the 5’7 guard has developed into more of a playmaker.

Her overall game has progressed, and while her points per game average (11.3) isn’t as high as it was with the Titans, she’s impacting the game in different ways. In a Feb. 29 overtime win against UC Davis, Wahinekapu dropped 18 points to lead Hawaii. But just before that, in a win against Long Beach State on Feb. 24, she scored only six points but dished out six assists.

Being able to find that balance between scoring and passing and impact the game in multiple ways has been a major focus for her since coming to Hawaii.

“At Fullerton, I felt like I looked for my shot a lot there, and coming to this program has really opened my eyes to being more of a facilitator. But it’s also allowed me to score,” Wahinekapu said. “Just learning how to impact the game differently, not just by scoring. I’ve had many talks with my coaches about what it is to be a point guard and when to score, when to push the tempo and when to set up plays and get my teammates involved.”

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Before the season, Hawaii was picked to win the Big West in the annual coaches’ poll. With the regular season winding down, the Rainbow Wahine sit atop the conference with a 16-3 record and a six-game win streak.

They will head into the Big West Tournament next week as the No. 1 seed, giving them a bye into the second round. For the past couple seasons, the Rainbow Wahine have scheduled tough nonconference games against high-major schools. Last season, they played Oregon State and Stanford. This season, they took on Stanford, Washington and UCLA.

Wahinekapu believes games against tough opponents have helped drive Hawaii’s regular-season success.

“We just continue to keep getting better. We had a really tough [nonconference season] playing top-ranked teams in the country. Each game we just learned from it and kept pushing each other,” Wahinekapu said. “Our team, we hold each other accountable and aren’t afraid to tell each other what’s up. It’s like a family here. I think our coaches do a really good job of creating that family atmosphere.”

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And with another successful individual season for Wahinekapu in the books, and a successful team season as well, her goals for the end of the year are simple:

“Another Big West championship and to stay in first the entire season. And hopefully advance to the NCAA Tournament. Those are the main goals.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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