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LOREN BENOIT/Press North Idaho College’s Alphonso Anderson dunks during a game against Community Colleges of Spokane in February.

Out of Garfield High of Seattle, Alphonso Anderson had his choice of 15 basketball programs to continue his playing career.

Then, he missed out on the experience of playing Division I basketball at the University of Montana.

“I’d torn my meniscus (in his left knee, as a senior in high school) and wasn’t able to play,” Anderson said. “When I was there, I really didn’t get to experience the basketball side of things.”

After sitting out during the 2016-17 season in Missoula, Anderson moved on to Moberly Area Community College in Missouri for the fall semester in 2017, before finally landing at North Idaho College for the spring semester in 2018.

“That was one of the hardest times I’ve ever been through,” Anderson said. “I’ve had basketball my entire life. When things were going wrong, I always had basketball. It was my outlet. Being hurt, and watching the entire season and having to sit, it was tough. It challenged me a lot, but now I’m overcoming it.”

Anderson, a 6-foot-7 forward, redshirted at NIC when the team won the Northwest Athletic Conference championship last year.

“The guys here took me in at Christmas,” Anderson said. “I was super fortunate for that. The guys made me feel a part of the team right when I got here. It was a great thing for me.”

While he was redshirting, Anderson practiced with NIC after arriving on campus.

“Because they looked out for me, I just wanted to compete as hard as I could for them in practice,” Anderson said. “I just wanted to get better each day. It was a lot of fun to watch them win a championship.”

Anderson recalled watching a former high school teammate, Mikey Hope, when he arrived at NIC in the 2012-13 season.

“We came and watched a game here a long time ago,” Anderson said. “When I asked for my release from Montana, the coaches here were the first ones to come see me. Initially, I was just thinking I was going to transfer to another Division I school. Back then, I really didn’t understand the junior college process. These guys (NIC men’s basketball coach Corey Symons and assistant coach George Swanson) reached out to me, and I really liked their vibe. These guys seemed legit, and that’s proved to be true.”

In November, right after NIC’s season opener against Peninsula, Anderson signed to continue his playing career at Utah State. He will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Brayon (BJ) Blake, a former Garfield standout who later played at Idaho, was also a Garfield High product.

“Alphonso was coached by a former teammate of mine, Ed Haskins (now an assistant coach at Washington State),” Symons said. “I’ve seen Alphonso a lot through high school and college, and knew what kind of player he was. He’s one of the top players in the state in high school and had 15 different offers coming out of high school. He just got hurt and had a tough time getting healthy. When he transferred from Montana to (Moberly Area), he still couldn’t get healthy. Even this year, he wasn’t playing very well because he just wasn’t healthy. He was having some lower back pains and knee issues. Now, he’s finally healthy and our training staff did an amazing job of getting him healthy, and he’s starting to play the way he did in high school. In high school, he was a man-child. He could dribble, he could shoot it and could do a little bit of everything. We always joke with him that he’s a big guard because he can play so well around the basket.”

Anderson is averaging 15.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He had 20 points and 12 rebounds in the Cardinals’ 105-68 opening round win in the Northwest Athletic Conference Championships over Clackamas on March 8.

And Anderson appreciates what Symons and Swanson have done for him.

“They’re big-time,” Anderson said. “They helped me get back on the right basketball track. This year, it was my first time playing a game since high school. It was tough for me because I hadn’t been away from the game for that long. I struggled early on with consistency and stuff, and am still getting better. That first semester at Montana, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d never faced not being able to play basketball. It made me think and appreciate a lot of different stuff. If basketball could be taken away, then anything else I loved could be as well.”

NIC (29-2), which has won 20 straight, faces Lane (27-3) of Eugene, Ore., the South Region’s top seed, in the NWAC Championship semifinals at Everett Community College on Saturday at 5 p.m.

NIC beat Centralia 84-56 in the second round on March 9 in Everett.

“We’ve got 12 great players playing on this team,” Anderson said. “And I think they could all go on to the next level and play somewhere. Our depth really challenges us in practice each day, and that really pushes us to get better. When we go out on the court, we’re really unselfish. We all kind of look out for each other.”

In last Friday’s quarterfinal, NIC and Centralia were tied at 34 at halftime before NIC outscored them 50-22 in the second half.

“It’s kind of good they challenged us,” Anderson said. “All year, we’ve kind of been running through teams. And it’s good to an extent, because when you face a challenge, it’s like, ‘Oh shoot, how do we respond?.’ And we responded well in the second half. We can’t have a hiccup like that this week, or for at least that long of a time this weekend.”

Walla Walla and Spokane play in the other semifinal, giving the East Region three of the four teams left in the tournament. NIC went 16-0 in East Region play this year, though Anderson knows that anything can happen in the postseason.

“It’s kind of tougher to prepare for them now,” Anderson said of the other two East Region teams. “Growing up, my AAU team was always the top team in the area. When we’d play somebody three or four times, and they kept losing, their drive just got hungrier and hungrier. If we win on Saturday, that Sunday game is going to be no joke. Whoever wins that other game is going to come out with a fire. With the regular season, those games aren’t win or go home. In the championship, it’s going to be a battle.”

NIC leads the NWAC in scoring at 104.5 points per game, followed by Lane with 98.5 per game. NIC is third in scoring defense (71.8 per game) and Lane 21st (81.5).

“It will be interesting to see their game plan and ours,” Symons said. “They have the same style, and like to get up and down the court. We’re going to do the same stuff we’ve been doing, get guys out and run and try to get our shooters in good positions. They shoot the ball really well, so we’ve got to contest 3s.”

NWAC BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS

At Everett Community College

MEN

Saturday, March 16

Semifinals

North Idaho (29-2) vs. Lane (27-3), 5 p.m.

Spokane (22-9) vs. Walla Walla (21-10), 7 p.m.

Sunday, March 17

Championship

Semifinal winners, 4:45 p.m.

WOMEN

Saturday, March 16

Semifinals

Big Bend (27-4) vs. Umpqua (27-4), 1 p.m.

Lane (28-3) vs. Wenatchee Valley (26-5), 3 p.m.

Sunday, March 17

Championship

Semifinal winners, 2 p.m.

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