Some of the most poignant words after the Lakota Nation Invitational boys' championship Saturday night came from the losing side.

After his team had fought to erase a near 20-point deficit in the second half, only to fall 73-69 to White River in overtime, Crow Creek coach Billy Jo Sazue was visibly more distraught than is customary for a high school basketball game in December.

Because it's the LNI, not just another early season basketball tournament.

"It's culturally significant, Indian country comes together for this. These kids are friends, they play against each other or with each other all summer," he said. "It's like an early season state tournament, and it means a lot. These kids grew up watching and idolizing the players who have played in this tournament before, so I think that's what makes it special."

Saturday night the 41st LNI wrapped up with a classic boys' final. The two teams played an exciting, intense, drama filled game that had all the feel of a state championship game.

The drama and intensity was present for me last year as well, when I covered the girls' championship game, a 65-31 Little Wound victory over Pine Ridge.

To the people that grown up with the tournament, it's nothing new. To someone that isn't from around here, like myself, it's hard not to be awed by a setting that has the intensity and feel of a tournament in March, not December.

When the Class AA boys' and girls' state tournaments were held at the Civic Center last March, it wasn't void of drama or intense moments. There was something different in the air Saturday night, however. The victorious White River players jumped on and hugged each other like they had just reached a season-long mountain top, while plenty of Crow Creek players openly cried, even though their season is still in its infancy.

As a sports writer, or a fan, how can that kind of passion not be captivating?

"It's the 41st year, it's been going on for a long time and there's a lot of tradition with it," winning coach Eldon Marshall of White River said of the LNI's importance. "It's not just a basketball tourney, it's great to be a part of. It's four long days, it's hard on the kids. It's a lot of effort and a lot of work so when you can come out on top, you feel pretty special."

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This is the second LNI that I have covered, and many reading this will rightfully roll their eyes, or even say "well, duh," because this tournament has been such a part of life for those in this part of the country.

My only point is this: From an outsider's perspective, cherish what you have in the LNI. This kind of thing doesn't happen in other parts of the nation.

Whether it be the basketball, wrestling, cross country, cheerleading or volleyball tournament, the cultural pride that was on display at every turn when walking the halls of the Civic Center or before the games last weekend made it clear to me; this is more of a celebration than a tournament.

Although the games probably won't impact the final standings in any great way, these tournaments matter because of the tradition that has come with them. The athletes and coaches who participate in these tournaments by into that tradition, and it shows in the raw emotion expressed after wins and losses.

"Our school won this tournament multiple times, but it had been four years since we won this tournament," White River's Tyson Iyotte said after his 26 points keyed the Tigers victory in the final. "Our team is like a family, so when we win something it's all together. It's just amazing."

And if the history and cultural significance isn't impressive to you, take it from me, the basketball is pretty entertaining too.

Contact Geoff Preston at geoffrey.preston@rapidcityjournal.com

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.