Wyoming Indian Chiefs win state 2A basketball title
By Ron Feemster
— March 11, 2014
The Wyoming Indian High School boys basketball team rode a city fire truck through Riverton on Sunday to celebrate the latest in the school’s long string of state 2A championships.
The truck was followed by a half-mile-long parade of cheering and honking well-wishers, who drove cars painted with the names and jersey numbers of favorite players.
Basketball is more than a sport on the Rez. The game — like the school gymnasium it is played in — brings together a proud community that sometimes feels ignored by the rest of the state. Wyoming Indian High School enrolls fewer than 200 students, but the gym seats 3,000 spectators. Every year, the high school in Ethete closes Thursday and Friday on state tournament weekend. The school calendar makes up those days in the spring. A caravan of local residents follows the team buses to Casper, where Wyoming Indian fans are easily the largest and most vocal contingent at the Events Center.The Chiefs beat the Rocky Mountain Grizzlies 69-53 Saturday night in the championship game, but survived a much tougher game against Greybull in the semifinals on Friday.
“They stepped up and met the challenge,” said Craig Ferris, head coach of the Chiefs. “They met every challenge face on.”
The Lady Chiefs made a strong showing in Casper over the weekend as well. They brought home the third-place trophy after a season of turmoil off the court, including a string of suspensions that left them with a different starting lineup almost every weekend until the regional tournament.
“We were never sure who would take the floor for us most of the season,” said Aleta Moss, head coach of the Lady Chiefs. “We were 14-10 when we went to Regionals. Then we played strong at State.” The team lost to Lovell in the 2A West Region finals and lost only once in Casper, falling to the eventual state champion Tongue River Lady Eagles in the semifinals.
“I’d like to see the girls up there on the truck, too,” said Patrick Goggles, who has represented the Wind River Indian Reservation community in the state House of Representatives for the last 10 years. Goggles brought his grandchildren to the K-Mart parking lot to see the Chiefs in the parade. “The girls’ team finished strong. But I think you have to be champ to ride the fire truck.”
The players climbed on the Riverton city fire engine in the K-Mart parking lot holding the trophy and the net they cut down from the basket after the game on Saturday night. They held their fingers aloft in the “Number One” gesture, but they gave no speeches. Being on top of the ladder truck said it all.
No one, including Ferris and his brother and assistant coach Mike Hiwalker, were certain of a win on Friday night against Greybull. The Chiefs trailed 26-20 at the half. The stat sheet handed out to the press showed two Chiefs assists against 14 turnovers. The team known for its long-range sharpshooters took only four 3-point shots in the half and missed them all. The Chiefs’ swarming defense gave up a string of backdoor layups when players chased the ball and forgot to cover a Greybull player sliding open on the baseline.
“They’re going to do that all night long,” Ferris shouted at his team during a timeout. “They’re going to run that backdoor play until you cover it.”
Taking a page from the Chiefs’ game, Greybull scored 10 points off turnovers in the first half, compared to just two by Wyoming Indian.
“I yelled at half time,” Ferris said. “There was a jersey on the floor. I kicked that. I threw a piece of paper.” Ferris, who was briefly suspended this season after he publicly disagreed with an officiating crew, is not known as a screamer in the locker room.
“Really it was Wilson who got everybody fired up,” Ferris said. The usually soft-spoken Wilson Clifford, a senior who shot only one for six in the first half, did not want to go home without a championship trophy. Or a ride on the fire truck. “Wilson got their attention,” Ferris said.
The Chiefs fought back in the second half, but not before falling behind 37-26 in the third quarter. The Chiefs outrebounded the Buffs, crashing the offensive boards on a cold-shooting night to score a string of second-chance points. Clifford and senior center Trevor Williamson combined for 13 rebounds in the second half.
The Chiefs tied the game at 38 and again at 40 with five minutes to go. In the end, the game was decided by foul shooting. Clifford did not go to the line in the first two periods but made 11 of 15 from the stripe in the second half. As a team, Greybull made just five of 10 free throws in the second half.
With 42 seconds on the clock, Greybull’s Payton Gonzales made a 3-point shot to cut the lead to four, 53-49. But those were to be the Buffs’ final points. Greybull fouled Wilson once on an inbounds play and twice more when he rebounded wild 3-point shots. He converted the free throws to give the Chiefs a 58-49 win.
The Grizzlies were a surprise opponent for Wyoming Indian. The team from Rocky Mountain High School in Cowley, near the Montana border in Big Horn County, entered the tournament as the fourth seed in its bracket and came from behind to beat favored Pine Bluffs in double overtime in the semifinal game late Friday night.
Pine Bluffs, led by a 6-foot-8 freshman with an unlikely name, Hunter Thompson, upset the Big Piney Punchers. The Punchers had defeated Wyoming Indian in a close, controversial game in Big Piney during the regular season, which left Ferris frustrated with the officials and suspended for airing his opinions about their work.
Chiefs fans who had seen the weak first half against Greybull in the semifinals worried that their team could come out flat in the title game. Or, worse yet, that they might underestimate the Grizzlies, whom the Chiefs defeated by 25 points in Cowley in January.
But at game time, Wyoming Indian came to play. The Chiefs took a 21-8 lead in the first quarter and held the double-digit margin behind the hot 3-point shooting of freshman Buell Robinson, who hit five of seven 3-pointers in the first 16 minutes.
“I told them they needed to come out and take over the game in the first quarter,” said Donald Clifford, Wilson’s father, who also played on a state championship team at Wyoming Indian.
The elder Clifford needn’t have worried.
“The boys was fired up tonight after the last game,” said Wilson Clifford after the game. “They took it to them tonight.”
The Chiefs led a dogged Rocky squad 57- 39 at the end of three quarters. Even so, the Grizzlies were setting up for the sort of run that brought them back against Pine Bluffs in the semifinals.
Rocky Mountain is a disciplined team. Players know how to draw contact when they drive the basket. They stand firm on defense and take charges in the lane.
“I told our guys they were going to stand in there,” Ferris said. “We needed to pull up and shoot.”
But by the fourth quarter, two of the Chiefs’ starters, Clifford and fellow senior Joseph Howell, were on the bench with four fouls. Williamson sat for much of the second half. He fouled out with 2:11 to go after less than 20 minutes on the court. Keegan HerManyHorses, a versatile junior who shared the post with Robert Aragon in relief of Williamson and Howell, picked up four fouls in just over eight minutes.
This was the Grizzlies’ strategy against Pine Bluffs. Hang tough and foul out the starters. Then beat the reserves. With two key starters fouled out and another on the bench, Pine Bluffs could not hold the lead in the final minutes. Rocky Mountain tied the game in regulation and hung on to win in the second overtime.
But the Grizzlies were overmatched by the Chiefs’ bench. HerManyHorses, Robert Aragon, Tristan Gardner and Jared Mosqueda played tough defense, holding the lead until the starters returned. Mosqueda and starting guard Noah Valdez hit key 3-point shots down the stretch.
With about two minutes left, the outcome was beyond doubt. Both coaches subbed in their players who had not yet seen action. The Chiefs won 69-53. The Grizzlies, a long shot even to make it to the title game, would pick up a hard-earned second-place trophy. And the Chiefs would take their ride on a fire truck.
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @feemsternews.
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