Since Wednesday, basketball teams made up of players from Native American tribes have pitted themselves against each other in Phoenix gyms, competing for the 2014 Native American Basketball Invitational title. Saturday afternoon, though, many came together to watch as a seasoned boys team motivated by last year’s defeat and a girls team in just its second NABI appearance took home hardware in their respective gold brackets.
In the girls’ final, the first game of the afternoon, the Rockhawks, an inter-tribal team from Montana took down Lapwai, a team representing the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho, 64-52 at US Airways Center. The Rockhawks’ Morning Rose Tobey was named the tournament’s MVP as the junior scored 20 points in the title game, including nine of the team’s final 14.
The girls gold bracket title game started off tight with the lead changing hands until 10:44 left in the first half when the Rockhawks led 9-8. Out of the timeout, Lapwai’s Jayd Eke tossed in a short jumper to take a brief lead, but Tobey countered with a baseline jumper of her own, and the Rockhawks would never trail again in the game.
Head coach Barry Bighorn said Saturday and throughout the tournament, his team’s key was defensive prowess, which they showed in the first half, allowing Lapwai just 18 points as they built a comfortable lead.
“Our defensive intensity really made the difference,” he said. “Sometimes our offense wasn’t clicking the way we wanted to, but our defense kept us ahead. They work hard on both ends of the floor.”
Last year, in his team’s first NABI experience, the Rockhawks finished in the top two of their pool and moved on to the gold bracket, but the campaign ended with a first-round loss. Ever since, Bighorn and his girls have eyed NABI as the ultimate goal.
“This is far and above the best tournament in the whole country,” he said. “In our world, this is like our national championship. This is the big time for us.”
In the afternoon’s finale, Andrew Bowers, head coach of the boys’ gold champion Rez Runners — a team of Seminole and Miccosukee players from Florida — led to victorya group very familiar with the importance and heartbreak NABI can provide. They won 66-51 victory against Cheyennearapaho, a team made up of Cheyenne and Aarapho players from Oklahoma.
Last year, his squad made it to the quarterfinals in NABI — the farthest his team had made it in the history of the tournament — but a loss before reaching the championship was hard to swallow.
“It kinda left a bad taste in their mouth last year,” he said. “They put in a lot of work in the gym and came back ready to play this year.”
The Rez Runners and Cheyennearapaho stayed neck-and-neck for the first half and part of the final period. Both teams took their own six-point leads in the first period, but the first half finished knotted at 31-all.
Six minutes into the final period, the game still tied at 46, it appeared the game may go down to the wire, but a 16-0 run in the second half proved the difference for the Rez Runners.
“We finally locked in and played defense for the whole possession,” Bowers said. “Got the rebound, went down and converted on the other end.”
Beyond finally getting his first title at NABI, Bowers said his appreciation for the tournament extends to the fact that players like the boys’ gold MVP Trewston Pierce, who scored a game-high 22 points, finally get a chance to showcase their skills on a national level.
“People forget Native Americans are less than one-percent of the population, so a lot of people forget there’s talent on the reservations,” he said. “This is a good showcase to show ‘Hey, there’s some talent on these reservations that’s ready to go play college ball somewhere.'”