MESA, AZ — After a 16-day hiatus, the eighth-ranked Indian Hills men's basketball team returned to action at the 2021 Fiesta Bowl Junior College Shootout, hosted by Mesa Community College. The Warriors won the second quarterfinal contest of the tournament, 68-56, against New Mexico Junior College at Theo Heap Gymnasium.
Indian Hills (12-3) will face top-ranked Salt Lake on Tuesday night in the tournament semifinals at approximately 9 p.m. Salt Lake opened the tournament on Monday scoring 63 points in the opening half on the way to a 117-80 win over Glendale.
Other quarterfinal games on Monday included Midland College, receiving votes in the latest national poll, facing tournament host Mesa. South Plains closed out the quarterfinal round taking on No. 15 Snow College Monday night as the Courier went to press.
"This week is going to be a great test for us," stated head coach Hank Plona. "We're going to learn exactly where we are at as a team. We're either going to learn that we can be a national championship contender or we are going to learn that we are a ways off from that. Playing three games in three days will reveal a lot about our character and toughness as a team."
The Warriors are no strangers to the Fiesta Bowl, having won the tournament title back in December 2017. Indian Hills topped all three opponents – College of Central Florida, Mesa, and South Plains by an average of 19.0 points to claim the trophy.
The 11-3 Warriors enter the shootout ranked No. 8 in the latest national rankings after winning three straight to close out the pre-holiday portion of its schedule. Indian Hills put together two of its top three scoring efforts of the season in its last two contests, a 97-64 win over Lake Region State College (ND) and a 92-58 win over Northeast Community College (NE), both at the Hy-Vee Classic at the Hellyer Center.
Indian Hills' defense has been at the forefront of its success through the team's 14 games as the Warriors rank fourth in the nation in in opponents' field goal percentage with a 34.6 percent clip while allowing just 63.4 points per contest.
Four different Warriors are averaging 9.4 points per game or more on the year, led by Taj Anderson's 12.3 points per game. Freshman Enoch Kalambay has played a critical role for the Warriors down the stretch with double-digit scoring efforts in each of his last four contests. Kalambay was recognized as the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference (ICCAC) Athlete of the Week on Dec. 14.
The Thunderbirds of New Mexico entered the Fiesta Bowl with a 7-5 record, having dropped their last two contests. Head coach Luke Adams' squad averaged 80.2 points in the first 12 games of the season, led by Jordan Booker who entered the tournament averaging 18.1 points per game and a the fifth-most made free throws per game at 5.9 average makes from the charity stripe.
"New Mexico is one of the most talented teams in junior college," Plona noted. "Jordan Booker, Devin Buttes, Mouhamed, Mbaye, Dario Domingos, and Josaphat Bilau are very, very high-level talents, and Elijah Beard and Tommy Chatman can really shoot it. That is as strong of a core group as we will see all year."
Booker and Buttes would lead New Mexico on Monday with 11 points apiece while Chatman and Domingos each scored 10. Despite flourishing in the final minutes, the Thunderbirds could not overcome offensive struggles that plagued throughout the contest including 18 missed 3-pointers in 22 attempts, shooting less than 30 percent overall from the field and 18 turnovers that ultimately allowed IHCC to have a decisive 23-8 edge in the game scoring points off turnovers.
Kalambay led the Warriors with 20 points and eight rebounds on Monday. Isaiah Marin added 10 points and five assists as Indian Hills answered a pair of free throws by Domingos for the Thunderbirds on the opening possession of the game with 15 unanswered points over the next six minutes.
Labelled as 'America's best Junior College Invitational Tournament,' the Fiesta Bowl has attracted some of the top teams from around the nation since 1983. South Plains has won four of the last five tournament titles, with the lone exception being IHCC's 2017 championship. After a one-year break last season due to COVID-19, the Fiesta Bowl returns for the 2021 season.
"Playing in a tournament with such a high-level field is great for our players and our community," Plona added. "We work 365 days a year to try and be the top program in junior college, and playing in these events is how you make that happen. We're excited to play in a tournament with elite programs and we are looking forward to seeing where we stack up."