TORONTO — Even before they stepped onto the basketball courts in Toronto for the North American Indigenous Games, Team Florida faced an uphill battle.
The U19 boys, which deserve plenty of credit for being Florida’s only basketball entry in the Games, never had a full squad for practices leading up to the event.
“We didn’t have everybody at practice,” said Eddie Redd, who coached the squad along with O’Bryan White. “There were about three kids that never came to practice, so it was kind of hard to put something together during the tournament.”
It only took the opening 10 minutes of its first game for Florida to know they were facing well prepared competition. Team Saskatchewan employed textbook basketball by producing crisp fast breaks complete with pinpoint passing that left Florida reeling and staring at deficits at Tait McKenzie Center on the campus of York University in Toronto.
Slow starts plagued Florida, which went 0-4 in pool C with losses to Saskatchewan (101-53), New York (100-71), Eastern Door & The North (88-67) and Alberta (85-69).
“We got in that hole early,” said Redd, whose team gamely battled back at times to slice into opponents’ leads, but the early deficits proved to be too much to overcome.
“We didn’t give up. We kept going,” said Dennis Gonzales, one of the team’s top scorers.
Florida fell behind Saskatchewan 26-7 after the first quarter. Florida battled back to narrow the gap to 10 points midway through the second quarter, but never got closer.
Saskatchewan led 42-24 at halftime.
Adam Souler, a member of the Mohegan Tribe from Connecticut who attends Lynn University in Boca Raton, joined Florida because there were no Connecticut basketball teams. Souler made an immediate impact as he poured in a team-high 23 points against Saskatchewan followed by Gonzales (10), Ethan Balentine (7) and Kamani Smith (6).
Similar to its opening game, Florida’s second game against New York featured a spirited run sparked by hard-working point guard Ethan Balentine, who led the team with 21 points followed by Gonzales (20), Nakai Alex (13) and Soulor (13).
Florida fell behind by double digits early and then made a run to pull within eight points midway through the second quarter before New York pulled away for good. New York led 59-36 at halftime. Florida made another charge in the third quarter to pull within 13 points, but New York controlled the final quarter.
New York went on to win bronze in the field of 15 teams. Washington captured gold with a 93-77 win against Minnesota.
Even though Florida went home without a win, Redd said he hopes his players, which also included Leslie Gopher Jr. and Jon Jimmie, didn’t leave empty-handed.
“The experience and learning to have camaraderie with your teammates,” he said. “A lot of them are individually inside; play together. It’s all about having fun and playing together.”