‘Showdown on the Rez’: ASU women take basketball game to Navajo Reservation

Freshman Iris Mbulito was all smiles as the Arizona State women’s basketball team prepared to leave for the Navajo Reservation, where it will play the Baylor Bears on Sunday. (Photo by Sam Ficarro/Cronkite News)

FORT DEFIANCE – Inspired to do more for the Native American community, the Arizona State women’s basketball team will play a game on the Navajo Reservation against the Baylor Lady Bears on Sunday.

The game dubbed “Showdown on the Rez” was announced last summer.

“The initial idea was to take the game to them,” ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “We always have a game honoring them, but it’s for people in the greater Phoenix area. But what about if we actually went up to the Navajo Reservation? The whole idea was national TV.

“Let’s face it, women’s basketball needs storylines. We don’t necessarily just sell ourselves, even though it’s two top teams playing. I honestly feel that was a huge part of the game.”

In previous seasons, ASU women’s basketball has designated a regular-season home game at Wells Fargo Arena to honor Native Americans.

Ryan Cohan, director of women’s basketball operations, said Turner Thorne wanted to do something a little bit different this season.

“(Turner Thorne) and I were talking about a year and a half ago on what we can do to get out there and positively influence the tribes within the greater community. The community means so much to our program starting way back when Ryneldi Becenti played here,” Cohan said. “There’s really no better time than now to play in their community and bring Division I basketball to their fans, and they absolutely love basketball.”

Becenti will be one of four former Native American ASU players to be honored at the game Sunday. Another former standout, Michelle Tom, led a coaching clinic Saturday afternoon.

Turner Thorne said her former players have been extremely grateful for Arizona State to schedule this game, with some tears shed at the press conference in Fort Defiance over the impact the game will have.

“I think it’s grown bigger and better than I thought,” Turner Thorne said. “A lot of people have been doing extra to do this and couldn’t more appreciative and they’ve been unbelievable in terms of really rallying people, not only locally but nationally, and their friends and family to support this event.”

Cohan said the search to finding an opponent to play in this game was short.

“It happened pretty quickly. Charli was out recruiting and ran into (Baylor coach) Kim Mulkey and talked to Kim about this idea,” Cohan said. “They were on board from the start and we thank them so much for their willingness to play this game and their understanding of the impact it’s going to have on so many lives.”

“I am just so excited and appreciative of all the people at Arizona State, both at the president’s office and the Native American Initiatives, our athletic department, the people at Window Rock High School, the school district and the town,” Turner Thorne said. “All the feedback I’ve gotten is that people are just really appreciative, especially those in the Native American community.”

Baylor is no slouch on the hardwood. The Lady Bears are fourth in the Associated Press poll; Arizona State is 23rd.

The Lady Bears present an early season challenge for the Sun Devils, but Cohan and Turner Thorne didn’t understate the importance of playing this game on the Navajo Reservation.

“Talking with our greater community, and this is what it really is, an opportunity to bring Division I basketball to the Navajo Reservation and really show they can use basketball as a vehicle to receive an education,” Cohan said. “We’re going to have student-athletes play in front of them that have Arizona State across their jersey and realizing that basketball could get you a college education and a degree. Just the opportunity to bring Arizona State to that community in itself is an amazing opportunity for so many kids to realize that a big-time university is just a few hours away.”

“We’ve tried to grow the game with our theme games to give back to the community and selfishly, grow the game. Maybe have some people come out that otherwise wouldn’t come,” Turner Thorne said. “Most of the Native American community love the game and they deserve this game. The fact that we get to bring it to them is very special to me, personally.”

Despite the result, Turner Thorne thinks the event’s biggest impact will be the stories that are told.

“If the stories we get to tell educate and inspire some people, then it will all have been worth it, win or lose.”

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