Twenty-five teams from throughout Indian country gathered at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) on the Flathead Reservation, in Pablo, Montana, in early March to decide the basketball champions for schools in the AIHEC Tribal College National Basketball Championship.
The host, SKC, came up winners in both the men’s and women’s divisions. Second place in each division went to NWIC from Bellingham, Washington.
“It’s been around since the ‘80s,” said Coach Juan Perez, about the tournament. “It’s held in a different location each year and this was our fourth time to host it. Thirty-seven schools are involved either as a member or an associate. This year, we had 12 men’s and 10 women’s teams.”
The men’s championship game came down to the final seconds. D.J. Fish, a Blackfeet member and tournament MVP, talked of those final seconds. “Northwest Indian College made a comeback. In my mind, I knew I was going to get the ball and it was just a matter of me getting to the bucket.”
That score put SKC back in the lead and with just 3.4 seconds left, D.J. was fouled. “I put the first [free throw] up. It felt good and looked good, and I was thinking ‘That’s good.’ But it hit the back of the rim and bounced out.”
He missed the second free throw as well, but fortunately for D.J. and the SKC team, the clock ran out before NWIC could score. SKC took the title and NWIC finished second after winning the tournament the previous two years.
Zack Camel coaches the men’s team at SKC and it was his 8th national title in 15 years. “It’s been really exciting and really important to give these tribal kids the opportunity to play organized college basketball,” he said. “Win or lose I’m always excited for them. They had a lot of fun together and we’re there for each other. It makes it easy to coach, and in the end, it was a success.”
“It was a really great tournament,” said Adam Lane, who coaches the women’s team at Northwest Indian College. “There was a lot of good competition. We had a really good season, and I’m proud of where we are, finishing second.”
Jolene Nagy, Okanogan from Canada, plays for NWIC, and was selected to the All-Tournament team. “It was disappointing to lose,” she said, “but interesting to see the different universities and colleges that were participating.”
“Sharna Frazier, our post [player], was just unstoppable,” said Katie McDonald, SKC team member and an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe. “Every rebound and shot she put back in was big because in our championship, we were literally going shot-for-shot with NWIC. Every rebound she got meant so much. It was keeping us afloat which was greatly needed.
McDonald gives credit to coaches Juan and Silas Perez. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have been the powerhouse we were. We ended the season with 26 straight wins and that wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t keep pushing us on and off the court.”