Fans packed in to the Sand Devils gym to see the boys basketball team vie for an important conference win against the Monument Valley Mustangs Thursday night. The night began with a beautiful rendition of the national anthem sung by Kalee Smith. The Sand Devils also “inked out” the gym in honor of cancer survivor Violet Smith.
After two upset losses last week the Sand Devils needed to win Thursday’s game to bring their 3A North win/loss record back up. The Sand Devil’s took the court and the stands thundered with fans from Page and Kayenta because former Sand Devil, Dante Dugi, was playing with the Mustangs against his old teammates.
The Sand Devils broke the court open with a fast break style that the Mustangs mirrored move for move. The ‘white on rice’ man-to-man defense made it hard for either team to find an open shot. The Sand Devils seemed to be apprehensive about the physical game due to problems with questionable foul calls in the past few games. The Mustangs took advantage and brought out some power plays that kept the score tied until midway through the first quarter when the Mustangs jumped the lead with four three pointers taking a 22-17 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Sand Devils struggled to communicate with each other on the court in the second quarter.
The Mustangs once again dominated the quarter keeping about a 10 point lead throughout. Justin Salabiye and Jordan Varner did their best to take it to the hoop with little success against the Mustang defense. Both teams made their buckets off the free throw line but the Sand Devils could not bridge the gap. The Sand Devils went to the locker room down by 8 points at the half, 28-36.
In the third quarter, the Sand Devils used their experience and stamina and came back to the court with a more confident demeanor. Varner landed an open three-point shot that sparked a chain of events that led to more aggressive plays by the Mustangs.
Anu Sloan landed two three-pointers, including one from way downtown, which spun the crowd into a frenzy. The Mustangs shadowed the Sand Devils play for play with a very tight man-to-man defense. But the Sand Devils transitioned offensively and soon the Sand Devils tied the score. They took the lead when Salabiye hit some free throws near the end of third quarter. They led 53-51 entering the fourth quarter.
During the fourth quarter, the two teams looked like they were playing playground ball, with a lot of hustle and innovative plays. Sloan and Dugi matched up and the challenge between the former team mates was on.
Dugi blocked a shot by Sloan and took the ball down into the lane for a shot, drawing the foul for a three-point play. The crowd went crazy when the score once again became tied. In the game’s final minutes both teams utilized some of their best plays, showing some of the most impressive minutes of basketball seen all season.
With a minute left on the clock Sloan took possession of the ball and found an opening to land a three point swish, giving the Sand Devils the lead. The Sand Devils then regained possession when Salabiye grabbed the rebound off a missed jump shot by Mustangs with 22 seconds left on the clock.
In a smart play, Gabriel Gomez wound down the clock down which made the crowd go berserk. The Sand Devils secured the win in what was one of the best games of the season 64-61.
“I am so proud them battling it out to the very end. They were making everything they put up and they did it together.” said Head Coach Russ Skubal. “When we went to the locker room at half time I didn’t say [much] to them. They did it on their own. They just played and they came out victorious.”
Seeing Dugi on the court with the team was bittersweet for Coach Skubal, but worthwhile because the team felt challenged to win. “It was a brotherly [challenge]”, he added. “Plus, the refs did a good job letting the players play.”
After the game Sloan stated that had been an emotional challenge playing against his little brother [Dugi] on the court where they were once teammates.
“It was a hard assignment [to be paired against him],” he said. “We grew up together. My dad put us both to work so it was weird to play somebody I had trained with 24/7. It was a challenge. But I got him with some tricks he didn’t know about.” Sloan said almost jokingly. “He came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s play’. He blocked me and I said, ‘Here we go’ then we were back on the play ground.”
Sloan added that letting go of the pressure allowed the Sand Devils to win.
The Sand Devils will play their last home game of the season against the Window Rock Fighting Scouts this Saturday to vie for the number two spot in the 3A North region. The game is expected to be a Battle Royale due to the last time they played in Window Rock a questionable Hail Mary shot caused the Sand Devils to lose at the buzzer.
The Sand Devils have an overall record of 15-5 with a 3A section record of 5-2.