Hollywood scriptwriters couldn't have written a better ending for Noorvik's Danny Wells at the 2013 Native American Basketball Invitational tournament. They couldn't even have come close.
A year after helping lead Team Alaska to the Sweet 16 round of the national tournament, Wells -- the Class 1A state player of the year -- got more than a little help from King Cove's P.J. Hamilton and Unalakleet's Stu Towarak, and celebrated a national championship.
Backed by double-digit performances by Hamilton and Towarak, Team Alaska captured its first NABI national title by grinding out a win over the Arizona Warriors in front of a large crowd at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix on July 21. With the win, Team Alaska -- a group of athletes from the Bethel, Norton Sound, Northwest Arctic and Dillingham regions -- finished the tournament with a perfect 7-0 record. In all, more than 128 teams from 13 states competed in the event.
"It was quite the event," said Team Alaska coach Steve Craft. "It was really a great experience. They are an awesome group of young men. Their willingness to play team basketball was impressive."
Team Alaska received a gift, of sorts, early in the tournament. The team got off to a slow start in their first game of pool play and had to fight hard to edge past Hoksila Sica, a team of all-stars from the Sioux Nation in South Dakota.
Team Alaska defeated Hoksila Sica, 59-55, in the first round of Pool J.
"They started a little slow and that got them going," said Craft. "They figured out how to play with each other, and what everyone's strengths and weaknesses were from there."
Team Alaska closed out pool play by picking up a 72-45 win over Team Jordan and a 59-25 rout of the Navajo Miners from Arizona.
By winning its pool, Team Alaska earned a berth in the championship bracket. The team opened the championship bracket against the Arizona Redskins and raced to a 54-43 victory.
In the second round, Team Alaska held off a hard charge from Wanbli Oyate to claim a 56-51 decision.
Wanbli Oyate is an all-star team made up from athletes from the North Dakota Standing Rock Reservation.
Team Alaska closed out a busy four-game stretch on Saturday, July 20, with back-to-back wins over Hi 5, a New Mexico-based squad, and Montana Bigsky, a group based on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
The 52-36 win over Montana Big Sky vaulted Team Alaska into the championship game.
In the finals, Team Alaska struggled to get its offense in gear early. The Warriors raced to an 8-point advantage before Team Alaska found its game. Team Alaska outscored the Warriors by a huge margin over the final eight minutes of the initial 16-minute first half and carried a 30-20 cushion into the break.
"They got up on us a bit," said Craft. "But we kept playing our game and took a 10-point lead at the half."
Hamilton carried the hot hand for Team Alaska for much of the contest. The King Cove star posted a double-double performance in the title game, finishing with 18 points and a team-high 14 rebounds. He was named the game's MVP following the contest.
Team Alaska stretched its lead to 15 late in the second half before Hooper Bay's Kacy Green sealed the team's win by starting a game-cinching play. With Alaska up by 13, Green, the Class 2A player of the year, pulled down a defensive rebound, passed the ball upcourt to Hamilton who lofted an alley-oop pass off the backboard that Towarak grabbed and slammed home.
Towarak was whistled for a technical foul on the dunk for hanging on the rim. Arizona managed to hit a pair of free throws to cut their final margin to 13 with 2 seconds left.
"It was the perfect ending for us," said Craft, who said his team didn't mind the technical foul the team drew when Towarak was whistled for hanging onto the rim following the dunk.
Hamilton, Towarak and Wells all averaged more than 10 points per game during the weeklong event.
Craft said even though Hamilton, Towarak and Wells came up big in the tournament, every player was important to the team's success in the tournament.
"Everyone contributed all the way through," said Craft. "We wouldn't have gotten where we did if we hadn't played as a team."
Craft said another key for the team was the time they spent at the Danny Miles camp in Oregon prior to the tournament. At the camp, the players got to play with each other, as well as learn from Miles, who coached Oregon Tech to the 2012 NAIA national championship.
Miles, the second-winningest coach in the history of men's college basketball, has amassed 971 wins in a 43 year coaching career.
This article originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.