Fans from the Winnebago Reservation turn out to support the Winnebago Lady Indians girls’ basketball team at the Nebraska state tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo by Bethani Redhorn / Winnebago Indian News
Girls’ basketball team from Winnebago Reservation makes it to state tournament
‘Won and not done!!!’: Lady Indians advance to semi-finals
Friday, March 5, 2021

LINCOLN, Nebraska — Early in the first quarter, it looked like the dream might end.

Lucy Ghaifan, the 6-foot center from Grand Island Central Catholic School, scored six unanswered points, twisting and pushing her way to the basket and fueling her team to a 10-point lead over the Winnebago Lady Indians girls’ basketball team.

Before the bright lights and raucous crowd at Pinnacle Bank Arena here in Lincoln, the girls did what they have done so often this season. They dug down deep and found the will to win.

“We knew we had to play as a team and be positive the whole time,” said Winnebago senior and six-foot guard Madeline “Maddy” Cleveland. “It was amazing. It’s really a good feeling.”

The Winnebago team upset fifth-ranked Grand Island Central Catholic 48-46 during the first round of the Class C-1 state tournament in Lincoln. It’s the first time since 1990 that the team has made it to the tournament, and it wasn’t an easy road getting there.

The team began their season with a losing record, winning just six of their first 15 games. But just as they did Wednesday, they fought their way back and found their rhythm to get to the state tournament.

The Indians defeated a strong team from Pierce, Nebraska, to qualify for districts and then knocked off the No. 1 seed for districts, Malcolm, to secure a state berth.

On Friday morning, the team at 16-10 will face No. 6 North Bend Central in the semifinals.

The Winnebago Lady Indians defeated a higher-ranked team from Grand Island Central Catholic during the first round of the Class C-1 state tournament in Lincoln on March 3, 2021. Photo by Bethani Redhorn / Winnebago Indian News

Coach Adam James said North Bend is known for its tall and fast players and strong inside plays.

He said the Indians will have to execute their screens and share the ball.

“Whatever comes during the game, our girls are really good at adjusting,” he said. “If we need a three, then they’re going to knock one down.”

Indeed, the team has become renowned for its three-point shooting prowess, and they demonstrated their skill at the three-point line Wednesday as junior Alyssa Wilson scored 15 points on five threes, helping her team regain the lead late at 43-41 in the fourth quarter.

But it was No. 1 Natasha Deal who seemed to be everywhere, earning points off steals and weaving her way through defenders to score 16 points. In the second quarter, the 5-foot-7 senior led Winnebago on a 15-1 run with nine points of her own that put them ahead at the start of halftime.

“We always kind of start off slow, and we always kind of find our spark in the second quarter,” she said, taking a break from team practice Wednesday in Lincoln.

After the half, that spark became a flame as the Winnebago girls held the lead in the second half until the last minutes of the game until Grand Island retook the lead briefly. That ended quickly after Deal tied the game at 41-41 with 1 minute remaining.

Sophomore Sylvia Valentino then sealed the deal on Grand Island’s next possession, stealing the ball, weaving through two defenders and scoring a layup that put the Indians ahead for good.

Keisha Snyder, the 5-foot-10 senior center for the Indians who has averaged 18 points a game, was pivotal Wednesday in keeping Ghaifan in check and was again one of her team’s leading scorers. She also assisted Deal several times, and Deal assisted her.

She said she has known Deal since kindergarten and the two have played basketball together since fourth grade.

“I know where she’s at on the court, and she knows where I’m at,” Snyder said of Deal.

Dancers perform during the Nebraska state girls’ basketball tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 3, 2021. Photo by Bethani Redhorn / Winnebago Indian News

The Winnebago girls are carrying on a tradition with their championship journey, following in the footsteps of the Winnebago boys who won the 2015 state basketball championships.

And the team’s fans also carried on another tradition Wednesday, clearly outnumbering Grand Island’s fans and filling the arena with the team’s signature blue.

Snyder, who has scored more than 1,000 points this season, thanked the team’s supporters.

“I just want to thank them for always being with us, especially for my parents,” she said. “The atmosphere that we had at the state tournament yesterday and that we’re going to continue to have is just unbelievable and I can’t appreciate it enough.”