Northern Arizona Elite take runner-up NABI crown

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

PHOENIX, June 19, 2012

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(Times photo – Alastair Bitsoi)

O ver the weekend at the 10th annual Native American Basketball Invitational, the Cheyenne-Arapaho team captured their fifth boy's NABI title after defeating Northern Arizona Elite of Window Rock, Ariz., 63-58, at Grand Canyon University.

According to head coach for the Oklahoma team Reggie Island, the RESPECT program paid major dividends for his team and is a major reason the team dominates high school basketball across Indian Country,

The RESPECT program, which stands for Recreation Exercise and Sports for the Elders and Children of our Tribes and is based in Concho, Okla., is a major sponsor for the team.

"Oh man, it feels great," Island said after winning the team's fifth title in 10 years. "Most of the time you're happy with one but you keep going. Every time we win it gets better and better."

The Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal Council, which established the RESPECT program, invests seven percent of the tribe's gaming revenues into the program, which funds athletic teams like his, Island said.

"Our program goes all the way from fifth and sixth grade all the way to high school," Island said of the program. "We start them early out there."

Since taking over the team in 2007, Island said he has sent 12 of his players to the college ranks, either in basketball, football or some other athletic scholarship.

"Sometimes high school is their last moment but I don't teach that,' he said. "You got to keep going and going. I try to instill that in our kids."

That attitude, of course, is seen in Island's teams.

Prior to playing in NABI, the Oklahoma team played close to 100 games in open basketball tournaments for preparation. Out of the 64 teams entered in the boy's division, it was evident the investment by the tribe and the number of games the team played paid off.

When the Cheyenne-Arapaho boys took the court against Northern Arizona Elite in the gold-division championship game, the team executed during the pressure situations and used their deep bench to pull away from the feisty, shorter Navajo team.

Trailing by 13 points before the half, Cheyenne-Arapaho reeled off 6-straight points to come within 7 points at the break, 32-25.

During the break, Island told his team the importance of the first five minutes of the second half.

"They have the crowd on their side," Island told his team at the half. "They're going to be playing off the emotion and we got to take the crowd out."

Island added, "That is exactly what I said at half time. I said the first five minutes of the second half was going to be real big."

As it turned out, Island was correct about those five minutes.

The Cheyenne Arapaho team opened the second half with a 15-1 run. Cheyenne-Arapaho's Phoenix Bills and Mike Jones combined for 9 of those 15 points.

"I think that was the game right there," Island said of the 15-1 run. "Yeah, they made the run near the end of the game but the first five minutes was the key."

From the run, Cheyenne-Arapaho built their lead to 13 points, when Bills drilled another 3-pointer.

Northern Arizona Elite's Corey Quigley, who led all scorers with 24 points, helped stage a comeback as the team made an 11-0 run in the latter part of the game. That was too late as the team came as close as 3 points at 51-48, when Darren Ashley hit two free-throws with 2:49 remaining.

With the momentum back in their favor, Arizona team only needed to play tough defense and execute on the offensive end. But jumpers by Bills, who was voted as the tournament's most valuable player, and Jones killed the momentum instantly, by stretching the lead, 55-49.

Bills went 4-for-4 at the charity stripe to finish with 16 points, while Jones hit 2-of-2 for 19 points to secure the game and the title, 63-58.

"Our depth really helped," Island said. "Their shots weren't falling. That team was excellent. In the first half our boys took them for granted. They went on an 11 and 0 run. I didn't call a timeout because I wanted our boys to play through it."

Northern Arizona Elite head coach Homer Ashley said his team's 7-point lead at the half made his team relax.

"I was hoping the boys wouldn't get into relaxation mode," he said adding that his team also became tired after playing bigger, stronger teams like the Oglala Lakota Nation and North Dakota Warhawks in the semifinals and quarterfinals.

"This whole tournament we ran," Ashley said. "We full-court pressed and played man-to-man. Our shots were off. Kevin Yazzie from Chinle always had that three-point shot. He was averaging four three pointers a game, even Kyler Ashley and Cyrus Cly."

Homer Ashley said had his team sank the five free-throws they earned from drawing fouls late in the second half, "We could have tied up the game."

Ashley, however, did give credit where it was due.

They're a good ball team," he said. "I knew they were tough. They're big guys. They're tall and strong and a well-balanced team. They're a pretty good team."

Even for his team, Ashley was satisfied with a second-place finish.

"I'm so proud we got this far," he said. "I didn't expect to get this far. I don't know if there has been a Diné team that played in the championship game."

Quigley, who is one of 10 underclassmen on the team, said the five-point lost to the five-time champs will be used a motivation for next summer.

"It's a good experience for us because were mostly all juniors and sophomores," he said. "We're planning on using this as motivation next year. We'll beat them next year."

In addition to Quigley, Northern Arizona Elite also included Darren Ashley, Kyler Ashley, Keane Ashley, Plazza Bowman, Rain Brady, Jalen Claw, Cyrus Cly, Taylor Davis, Alexander Destea, Cecil Hubbell and Kevin Yazzie.

"I like to think I'm building a dynasty even though its only Native American ball," Island said. "The leading scorers in this game were just sophomores. We will be back for a couple more years for sure."

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