Steers win American Indian Basketball Classic tourney
Despite a 19-day layoff after winning the Steer Stampede on Dec. 8, the Magdalena boys basketball team won first place in the Bear bracket at the New Mexico American Indian Classic over the weekend.
The tournament, held in Bernalillo and Rio Rancho, showcased some of the top teams representing the state’s Native American basketball community at the Class 3A, 2A, 1A and B levels.
The Steers took care of Pine Hill on Dec. 27 by a score of 76-40, fought past the Laguna junior varsity 69-60 on Friday, then claimed the first-place trophy on Saturday by running past Walatowa, 73-51.
Mag is now 6-0 and it has won two consecutive tournaments to open the season, a feat impressive in itself. What’s perhaps even more impressive, and many fans likely know this already, is how impressively it’s winning with a young new lineup.
“I have two boys on this team that are sophomores that have played varsity basketball,” head coach Jory Mirabal said. “Everybody else is brand new. Something I had to do coming in was tell myself, ‘Whoa, I’m assuming these kids know some things that they don’t.’”
Whatever this team’s expectations were doesn’t really matter right now. What does matter is how quickly it manages to learn, adapt and respond to what Mirabal and his staff teach during practice.
While they did have that hefty layoff, the Steers haven’t technically had any significant amount of time to scout opponents. They find where their weaknesses are and they fix them hastily. So far so good, as they already have two new trophies to add to the school’s glass case.
“I think more than anything, aside from that, is I’ve enjoyed the process those last two weekends of coming in and setting some specific goals for our play, and going out and reaching those goals,” Mirabal said. “It kind of validates what we’ve talked about. If we take care of those goals, some of that winning stuff takes care of itself.”
Obviously Mirabal’s process is already proving to be a solid one.
Against Pine Hill the Steers started off fast and jumped out to a 42-16 halftime lead. The outmatched Warriors had no answer for Dre Montoya who hit five 3-pointers in the first half and six for the game. He finished with 27 points, shooting 10 for 13 from the field and throwing in an assist, seven rebounds and three steals. Tyler Julian added 14 points and Sedrick Apachito scored 12.
Pine Hill’s Tyrell Henio scored 15 points for his team, all coming from behind the arc.
Against Laguna’s JV Friday, things weren’t quite so easy. The Hawks were ahead anywhere from three to six points for most of the contest and forced the Steers to turn the ball over more than they characteristically do. But part of what makes Magdalena such a dangerous opponent is its ability to find points from a number of sources. With Montoya struggling from the field, Julian scored 32 points and had five assists to pace the Steers and ultimately lead them to the hard-fought 69-60 win.
Apachito recorded an impressive double-double with 19 points and 20 rebounds while Mike Chambers threw in eight points of his own.
In the tournament final on Saturday at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, a good crowd was on hand to witness what turned out to be an evenly matched contest. At least it was for 16 minutes.
Walatowa had earned its way into the final by dispatching Tse Yi Gai and Shiprock Northwest, so Mag knew going in it would present a formidable challenge. The Cougars have respectable size in the post and a couple of lightning-quick guards in Juwan Herrera and Phillip Pino.
Walatowa gave the Steers problems in the first two quarters by converting transition points in the paint and bottling up Magdalena’s shooters, and Mag was down by as many as six points in the second.
As the old saying goes: you can only keep a ridiculously good 3-point shooter down for so long. Maybe that’s not the exact phrase, but either way Julian and Montoya both found their rhythm and nailed two first-half 3-pointers apiece to ignite the Steers offense. Julian eased in a 3-pointer from the top of the key as time expired in first half to give his team a 34-31 advantage, and Magdalena never looked back. It outscored the Cougars 24-11 in the third quarter and built as much as a 17-point lead in cruising to the 73-51 win. Where Walatowa was finding early success in the paint, the exact opposite held true in the second half.
“I think it was a game of two halves,” Mirabal said. “The first half those guys came after us and got a bunch of layups inside. Second half, we talked about some adjustments defensively and the boys really responded. You have to give the boys a lot of credit to come out and be able to adjust like that.”
Mirabal said a large part of his team’s success in the second half had to do with getting on the boards and not giving the opposition second chance points. “We force them to take the shots we want, but what has hurt us in the past has been them on the offensive boards,” he said. “Tonight we did a better job of keeping them off, especially Sed (Apachito) inside getting those rebounds for us.”
In the finale, Apachito had a second consecutive monster game as he scored 17 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and blocked three shots. For his efforts he was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Julian scored 18 points and recorded eight assists, Chambers added 12 points and Josh Sisneros chipped in seven. Montoya scored 15 points against the Warriors and was named to the all-tourney team.
Herrera led the Warriors with 14 points.
Even though they ended up pulling away from Walatowa, the Steers still played through six difficult quarters against quality opposition during the tourney and while wins are always fantastic, gaining experience is still a priority for Mirabal and his team.
“Those are the games where you get to see your true colors,” he said. “If you play a team that exposes weaknesses, then it gives you a chance to work on them. The last two games I’ve seen huge growth across the board.”
Magdalena returns to action when it travels to Quemado to play the Eagles on Jan. 4. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.