Down 2 points at halftime of the Native American Basketball Invitational championship game and scoring only 31 points against a tough Oklahoma team, AZ Warriors coach Robert Johnston knew the best from his boys was coming in the second half.
And boy, he was right.
The Warriors scored 50 points in the second half on their way to an 81-68 win over the Cheyenne Arapaho Respect team in the July 2 NABI Gold Division title game at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
Once the Warriors pulled ahead by 8 points late in the second half, the end result had little doubt. The team also made history as the first boys team to win back-to-back titles in NABI’s 14-year existence.
“These boys have shown that type of heart throughout the tournament,” Johnston said. “[In] a lot of our good games, we started out down.”
The Warriors, an intertribal team of players with Arizona roots, includes four Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community members: Aaron Makil, Stanford Vasquez, Juan Acosta and Alex Hill-Jimenez.
The Warriors usually play 10 or so players key minutes throughout each game, with Vasquez and Makil in the rotation. Johnston often subs in four to five players at a time and wears opposing teams down with his depth, especially in the second half of games.
Warriors guard Amaury Matthews led the team with 24 points, and MVP Reyes Lomayestewa impacted the game beyond his 11 points. The team was made up mostly of seniors, including Matthews, Lomayestewa, Makil and Vasquez.
“We bonded so well as a team,” Makil said. “We were in it to win it from the beginning. Knowing that we all went out together as one and took home the championship is amazing.”
The history-making Warriors finished 5-0 in tournament play and 3-0 in pool play. Only one tournament win was by fewer than 10 points. Perhaps the team’s biggest test came early in pool play when Meskwaki, a team from Iowa, held the Warriors to their lowest point total (45) and lost by 3. Both the Warriors and Meskwaki advanced to the Gold Division, with Meskwaki losing to Respect by 3 points in the third round.
“We had to play some tough teams, one of the toughest (NABI tournaments) I’ve seen in a while,” Johnston said. “A lot of games were decided by a basket or two.”
The win sends longtime coach Johnston out on top. He said NABI 2016 was his last as a head coach.
“I’ve been coaching for 24 years, and I think it’s time for a break,” he said. “This was a good way to end it.”
A Successful NABI Tournament in the Books
For the first time in its history, NABI played all its games, except the two title games, in Maricopa, home of the Ak-Chin Indian Community. Maricopa, about 35 miles south of Phoenix, provided five gyms within a five- to 10-minute drive of one another. A sixth gym was not as close but was only a 20-minute commute from the five gyms. In the past, NABI played games in gyms scattered across metro Phoenix and teams often had to deal with traffic, besides navigating from gym to gym, said Angelo Johnson, NABI programs and event coordinator.
The Ak-Chin Indian Community has already committed to hosting NABI in 2017, he said.
“2016 is another great year for NABI,” Johnson said.
Since 2003, NABI has served more than 15,000 youth and has awarded more than $200,000 in scholarships. Its goal is to bring national attention to Native American athletes. College scouts have noticed. Johnson said at least 14 scouts from across the country attended NABI 2016.
Scouts aren’t the only ones noticing the well-deserved NABI hype.
AZCentral.com, one of Arizona’s most visited news websites, compared “rezball” at NABI to the style of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Golden State won the NBA title in 2015 and was runner-up this year. The team includes back-to-back NBA MVP Steph Curry.
“But [Golden State’s] style isn’t new,” reads the article. “It’s actually quite old, deeply rooted in very specific communities throughout the country…. It’s reservation ball, … and it’s the brand of basketball played from sunrise to sundown on outdoor, often on dirt courts in Native American reservations.”