In front of a packed Albert Ali Gymnasium, the St. John’s boys basketball team from New Zealand performed the Haka war chant.
The globe-trotting ballers who traveled more than 6,800 miles to get to the annual Nevada Union Invitational basketball tournament aggressively chanted, gestured and stomped in unison at center court, getting themselves pumped up for their impending battle with Nevada Union. Once the Haka war chant was completed, the hundreds in attendance cheered the Kiwis’ intensity, and with that, the NUIT began.
“It’s a cultural thing,” St. John’s head coach Bevan Sutton said. “Most teams in New Zealand do it.”
The warm welcome from the NU fan base and the pre-game hand shake were as hospitable as host team NU got, as the Miners used a second-half surge and staunch defense to win the opening game of the tournament and take down the Eagles, 54-35.
The Miners had three players score in double figures, getting 13 points from Lucas Vojak, 10 from Elliot Fournier and 11 from Jason Mickel.
“We came out with good energy and played hard,” Mickel said. “I think that’s our foundation — playing hard, having each other’s back and sharing the ball. Then everything else will fall into place.”
Mickel is back with the varsity squad in his senior year after missing all of last season with an injury.
The Miners started the game slow, falling behind St. John’s 6-1 early, but steals by Fournier and Sean Zuccaro led to easy buckets for NU, as it charged back to take the first-quarter lead, 14-8.
“What a blessing it is to have Sean back,” NU coach Jeff Dellis said, “really to control the offense and show his veteran leadership. He’s very calm, runs things. He’s deceptively athletic, but he’s a real student of the game, and he got us into our tempo. We’ve been missing that so far. We’ve been playing at a frenetic pace.”
In the second quarter, the Eagles’ Jayden Bezzant got hot and torched the Miners for 10 points in the quarter, giving him 14 for the half. Bezzant finished with a game-high 19 points.
Mickel provided an answer for the Miners, scoring six of his 11 points in the second quarter. Vojak added three points and pulled down four rebounds in the quarter to help NU to a 27-20 halftime edge.
In the third, the Miners kept feeding the 6-foot, 8-inch Vojak in the post, utilizing his sizable height advantage.
“Sean and Cody (Gardner) got him touches,” Dellis said. “They know how important it is for him to score. They know how capable he is, and they fed him.”
Vojak went for 10 points in the quarter, Mickel added five, and the Miners stretched their lead to 17 points.
“(Nevada Union’s) physical size and ability to go to the post was the difference,” Sutton said. “We’ve got no bigs. We knew if they went inside it would be a big problem.”
In the fourth, the Miners held St. John’s to only six points and cruised to the first-round victory.
NU’s Gardner added eight points, and Nolan Stefani chipped in seven points in the win.
The Miners will take on El Camino, which defeated Golden Valley, in the NUIT semifinals at 8 tonight.
In other tournament action, River Valley edged out West Campus 63-61, and McQueen beat Will C. Wood 71-64.
To contact Sports Writer Walter Ford call (530) 477-4232 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org