Scorpions dominate Sanders Invitational Tournament

Steven Bortstein
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Farmington Scorpions boys basketball team swept their competition over the course of three consecutive nights, capturing top honors in the 2021 Marv Sanders Invitational Tournament, which wrapped up Saturday in front of a packed house inside Scorpion Arena at Farmington High School.

In beating Gallup in the tournament finale Saturday by a score of 72-55, the Scorpions capped off a successful tournament, which also featured runaway victories over Shiprock and Durango.

Farmington jumped out to an early lead Saturday against Gallup, leading by eight points at the end of the first quarter, despite getting in some foul trouble.

The Scorpions extended the lead to go into the locker room up 42-27 at the half.

"We played a little physical early and might have taken it too far," said Farmington head coach Larry Chitty. "We have the bench to come in and do it and so we stopped fouling as much."

The Scorpions (6-0) used a combination of aggressive defense and an up-tempo offense to claim the tournament crown.

Played under a round-robin format, the six-team invitational winner was to be determined by most wins, with potential tie-breakers such as head-to-head matchups as well as average margins of victory.

Each of the teams were guaranteed three games over the course of the three-day tournament.

In the final game of Thursday's opening night action, Farmington began their successful tournament run with a dominant 74-32 win over Shiprock, with Cody Vassar-Steen leading the Scorpions with 17 points. 

Trel Griego and Landon Begay each chimed in with nine points in the runaway win.

"That was a really good start for us," said Farmington coach Larry Chitty. "I loved the energy the boys came out with in the first half. Our bench raised that intensity even more."

The Scorpions continued their impressive run in the tournament on Friday night, scoring an equally impressive 67-41 win over Durango.

Farmington dominated from the start, scoring the first 16 points of the game before the Demons got their first points with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter.

Vassar-Steen and Cayden Yazzie stole the show offensively, but Griego and Jevon Smith were anchors on defense for the Scorpions, who limited Durango's scoring chances with multiple turnovers and defensive rebounds.

"I thought they all made a huge step," said Chitty after the victory over Durango. "(Smith) really changed the game for us."

Farmington High School's Cody Vassar-Steen goes up for a short jumpshot over Larvell Skeet (12) and Joaquin Ortega (30) in the final game of the Marv Sanders Invitational Tournament, Saturday, Dec. 18 in the Scorpion Arena at Farmington High School.

Farmington's Cayden Yazzie was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player while teammate Cody Vassar-Steen was named to the All-Tournament team.

"I think this week was a huge step for us," Chitty said after the tournament finale. "I think we're a completely different team from a week ago." 

In earlier action on Saturday, Bloomfield claimed the runner-up spot in the tournament, knocking off Durango 45-41. That win, combined with Friday's 56-32 triumph over Shiprock, gave the Bobcats two wins in the tournament by a combined margin of 28 points, which topped Navajo Prep's record of 2-1 in the tournament by a combined margin of 14 points, securing them the third-place trophy.  

Shiprock earned their first and only win of the tournament on Saturday, besting Navajo Prep by a final of 60-52. It's the second win for the Chieftains in three matchups this season against Navajo Prep. Shiprock won their first game against the Eagles in dramatic fashion to secure the Chieftain Invitational earlier this month before Navajo Prep hammered Shiprock last week 67-37.

"We didn't think we were going to see each other this many times this early in the season," said Chieftains head coach Chester Atcitty, Jr. "This was a good one for us after the first couple of games. Hopefully we just stay on the positive side and keep working hard."

Between games on Saturday, Farmington High School also presented a tribute to the late Marv Sanders, for whom the tournament is named after.

Sanders, the fourth-winningest high school boys basketball coach in New Mexico history who won four state championships during an illustrious Hall of Fame career, passed away on Dec. 30, 2020.

Sanders coached over the course of four decades including nine years at Silver High School and 23 years at Farmington High, winning nearly 800 boys games, according to the New Mexico Activities Association website.

Sanders coached Farmington High’s boys basketball team from 1980 to 2003, winning two state titles in 1982 and 1986. Sanders concluded his tenure at FHS with a state finals appearance in 2003.

More:Farmington's Sanders Invitational will feature tribute to late head coach Marv Sanders

The tribute, which consisted of live and recorded remembrances from former players and coaches as well as highlights from Sanders' illustrious career, included a retrospective from New Mexico basketball historian and past president of the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame Marty Saiz, who chronicled an amazing career and legacy.

Navajo Prep's Orion King lays the ball off the glass over Bloomfield defender Andrew Florez during their first round game of the Marv Sanders Invitational, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 in the Scorpion Arena at Farmington High School.

Durango and Gallup opened the tournament on Thursday night, with the Bengals holding on to a 64-62 win over the Demons. Gallup led the game from start to finish, but had to overcome a late Demons rally to preserve the win.

"We still don't quite know how to finish games," said Gallup coach Joshua Dunlap. "We just started throwing it away. We're a really young group and we can't just throw it around late."

Navajo Prep opened the invitational on Thursday night with a hard-fought 44-40 win over Bloomfield. On Friday night, the Eagles earned another win, beating Gallup 58-48, remaining the only other unbeaten team in the tournament going into the final round.

Gallup High School's goes up for a shot against Durango's Jasper Zastrocky during their first round game of the Marv Sanders Invitational, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 in the Scorpion Arena at Farmington High School.

On Friday, Bloomfield got off to a fast start over Shiprock, leading 31-12 at the half on their way to a 56-32 win over the Chieftains.

Senior Aaron Watchman led the Bobcats with 18 points on the night and was also named to the All-Tournament team for his efforts during the invitational.

All six teams will resume regular season action next week, with the Scorpions at home Tuesday night against Bernalillo while Navajo Prep (5-3) will battle Rehoboth Christian.

Bloomfield (4-4) will take a bit of time off before venturing to Roswell High School to compete in the Poe Corn Tournament, with their opening game on Tuesday, Dec. 28 against Goddard.

Durango (5-5) will be off until the first week of the new year, when they visit Bayfield on Friday., Jan. 7.

Shiprock (4-5) will be home on Wednesday night to face Grants while Gallup (2-4) will also enjoy a short break before traveling to Hobbs for a tournament and a first round game on Monday, Dec. 27 against Artesia.

Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680.