The Arizona Republic

Mesa’s Benson making up for lost time on court

- Richard Obert To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert atrichard.obert@arizonarep­ or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter@azc_obert

Kota Benson was a rising basketball star on the Tohono O’Odham reservatio­n, before COVID-19 derailed his basketball journey.

COVID-19 shut down his sophomore season, a year in which Benson couldn’t even get inside the Baboquivar­i High gymnasium in Sells to shoot baskets.

It was partly why the family left the Southern Arizona reservatio­n and moved to Mesa. The other part was to challenge Benson on the court by going from the smallest level in 1A to the biggest in 6A.

Now the senior point guard has settled into Mesa High School, surpassing 1,500 career points and giving the Jackrabbit­s a chance at a 6A state championsh­ip. He’ll lead them Wednesday night at Anthem Boulder Creek in the quarterfin­als.

“There were a lot of restrictio­ns (on the reservatio­n),” Benson said about his sophomore year in 2020-21. “We weren’t allowed to do anything. It sucked. We had a good team. Most of the guys from my freshman year were going to be returning. We were looking forward to winning a state championsh­ip my sophomore year. It kind of derailed all of that.”

Benson caught up with his former teammates last Saturday in Prescott Valley, where Baboquivar­i took on Anthem North Valley Christian in the 1A state championsh­ip game. His former team lost 56-36, but Benson was happy to see his former teammates.

“I saw my boys,” Benson said. “I wish I could have been out there with them.”

Mesa (21-7) is glad to have Benson on its team. He leads the team with 16.4 points, 5.5 assists and 1.8 steals a game.

It was a seamless transition moving to the sprawling Phoenix area from the reservatio­n, where he lived since he was in the fourth grade after moving there from Tucson. He enjoyed the Sells community and its culture, as well as the school and the tradition of the basketball program. But he knew midway through his high school career it was time to ramp up the competitio­n.

One of his first summer games before his junior year came against Sunnyslope and All-Arizona guard Oakland Fort.

“Right away, I thought, this kid is smart, hard-working, gets it,” Mesa coach Scott Stansberry said. “That first

June he came over, those summer league games, you could tell the difference in competitio­n was different. but it didn’t take him long to adjust.”

Even while on the reservatio­n, he was playing on AAU teams against some of the best players in the state and in the nation. During his freshman year, he led Baboquivar­i to the 1A semfinals, averaging 21 points and seven assists.

He fine-tuned his shooting ability, his cross-over moves to the basket, his quick, pull-up shots in the last two years at Mesa.

“It was a big jump,” Benson said of moving from 1A to 6A basketball. “A lot more athletes. A lot of teams were really well-coached. From game to game, there was a lot more scouting, a lot more preparatio­n. That was probably the biggest adjustment.”

Benson said basketball was his life on the reservatio­n.

“There aren’t a whole lot of options for youth,” he said. “It’s the biggest outlet.”

Getting to 1,500 points in his last game, Benson wonders how many point he would be at now had Baboquivar­i not canceled basketball his sophomore year. Surely, more than 2,000.

“It goes through my head,” he said. “Whatever happened, happened, and I’m grateful to be here.”

 ?? MICHAEL CHOW/THE REPUBLIC ?? Mesa High’s Kota Benson (4) is defended by Mountain View’s Nate Bogle (42) at Mesa High School on Jan. 31.
MICHAEL CHOW/THE REPUBLIC Mesa High’s Kota Benson (4) is defended by Mountain View’s Nate Bogle (42) at Mesa High School on Jan. 31.

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