By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS
With about seven minutes left in the first half of the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game, Northern Arizona’s Liam Lloyd felt trapping pressure coming from the Big Sky Defensive MVP.
Lloyd, the son of Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd, panicked for a brief moment and threw a pass to no one in particular, the ball sailing over the expecting hands of NAU big man Carson Towt.
Lumberjack forward Nick Mains had a straight line on the ball. But good luck beating RaeQuan Battle to the spot.
Montana State’s Battle is swift and smooth like the wind, faster than should be possible despite somehow never looking like he’s fully exerting himself. On this particular play, the Bobcat junior started his sprint from the block on his defensive side of the court.
In less than two seconds, the 6-foot-5 skywalker was at half-court. One more second and the All-Big Sky guard had secured the ball. Less than three seconds after that, Battle had dribbled once and thrown down a two-handed dunk to give his team an eight-point lead in a championship contest that the Bobcats ended up winning by seven, 85-78, to advance to this week’s NCAA Tournament.
The play is easy to gloss over. But it marked the latest breathtaking moment from the artistic, free-flowing Montana State wing. And it came not long after Battle slammed home a game-winning alley-oop to lift MSU into the Big Sky tournament title game in a double overtime win over Weber State.
“You can’t approach him at the rim,” said Montana 9th-year head coach Travis DeCuire. “Once he gets to the rim, there’s not a lot you can do because there aren’t guys in this conference that jump high enough to change his shot enough to make him miss it.”
RaeQuan Battle is an established star. He was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a junior after earning all-conference and Big Sky Top Reserve honors during his sophomore year, his first at Montana State. His high-flying dunks, his stepback midrange jump shots, his crossover dribbles into pull-up 3-pointers—he has the full repertoire to score at a high level.
“He’s hard to guard,” Montana State fourth-year head coach Danny Sprinkle said earlier this season. “I am glad I don’t have to guard him. He took some tough shots tonight but even the ones he missed were good shots. I’m glad No. 21 is in a Bobcat uniform tonight and every night.”
That arsenal has helped him average 17.4 points per game, the top mark on the Bobcats, as Montana State prepares for its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance on Friday. The 14th-seeded Bobcats take on third-seeded Kansas State at 7:40 p.m. MST in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“He brings everything,” said Montana State senior center Jubrile Belo, the 2022 Big Sky MVP and the only four-time All-Big Sky selection in league history. “He’s going to defend, he is going to score. He’s quite the load on offense and we just ride him as much as we can. He’s one of the main guys in this conference and one of the best players I’ve ever played with.”
For as majestic as Battle is on a basketball court, what he plays for and what he represents goes far beyond 3-point shots and windmill dunks.
Battle grew up on the Tulalip Reservation in northwestern Washington. According to the tribal website:
We are the Tulalip (pronounced Tuh’-lay-lup) Tribes, direct descendants of and the successors in interest to the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish, and other allied bands signatory to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. We agreed to cede title to our ancestral lands as signatories, which expanded to the top of the Cascade Mountains, north to Vancouver Island, and south to Oregon. In return, the treaty reserved the Tulalip Indian Reservation as our permanent homeland over which we have retained inherent sovereign jurisdiction.
… Our tribal population is over 5,100 and growing, with 2,700 members residing on the 22,000 acres Tulalip Indian Reservation. We are located north of Everett and the Snohomish River and west of Marysville, Washington.
When asked about where he comes from, Battle says: “Tight knit community, everybody knows everybody, but there’s a lot of love out there. Once I grew up, everybody in my tribe is behind me. And it’s not that alone. Everybody in the surrounding cities, Marysville where I went to high school, there’s a lot of people all over that give me support and it’s all love.”
As Battle takes the court for his second NCAA Tournament contest, he represents something much bigger than himself. He is not only an ambassador for his tribe and his people, he’s an advocate and icon for Native peoples across the Northwest and across America.
According to NDN Sports, the leading resource for Native America sports news and stories, Battle is the lone male Native American playing in this year’s Big Dance.
Battle has not only embraced the pressure that comes from emerging from the reservation into the Division I spotlight; he’s also done it in Montana, a state that boasts seven Indian Reservations and a rich history of Native American basketball.
Marysville is a world away from Bozeman, Montana, not to mention more than 700 highway miles. Battle has family from his mother’s side who hail from the Crow Reservation in eastern Montana, so embracing Montana native admirers comes easily to him.
And every time he’s dunking, every time he’s speaking on behalf of the Bobcats in a media interview, the Montana State star knows he’s representing something much bigger than himself.
“I think about it every day,” Battle said, the handmade Navajo turquoise earrings he acquired somewhere along his journey glistening as they gently spun in the light of the Idaho Central Arena in downtown Boise just a few days before he and his teammates cut down the nets again on the way to the Big Dance.
“It’s what drives me. Being able to do something not everybody that where I come from has the opportunity of doing, that’s important. And it’s not just in my area. It’s all over the country. I want to reach that on a national level and someday, on an international level, too.
So often, Native American young men pursuing college basketball dreams crumble. Battle is impervious to the pressure.
“The pressure isn’t anything to me, to be honest,” Battle said. “I feel like I’ve been put on this earth for this very reason.”
The trials, triumphs and tribulations of Native basketball players from Montana, particularly the young men from the reservation have been chronicled on a national level. In 1991, one of the most iconic Sports Illustrated magazine issues of all time hit mailboxes, the cover featuring a photo of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone and the headline reading, “Watch out world! This could be America’s 1992 Olympic Five.”
The issue featured one of the most beautiful, poignant and important articles the magazine has ever printed: Gary Smith’s astounding story “Shadow of a Nation.” It’s the highlight of perhaps all SI issues, even more than three decades later. The story’s sub-headline reads: “The Crows, once proud warriors, now seek glory—but often find tragedy—in basketball.”
Smith retired in 2013 and spends his days living in Charleston, South Carolina and working on an unpublished novel about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. But in 1992, his stunning, tragic prose told the story of Jonathan Takes Enemy, a legend among Montana’s Native American people, a supremely talented yet tortured standout from Hardin who rose to great heights in high school but could never conquer the game or his demons after his prep career ended.
It also tells of legends like Elvis Old Bull, the Lodge Grass star that dominated Class B in the late 1980s in Montana, continuing the impressive legend of Indian basketball players in the Treasure State.
Smith’s story opens with: “Singing. Did you hear it? There was singing in the land once more that day. How could you not call the Crows a still-mighty tribe if you saw them on the move that afternoon? How could your heart not leave the ground if you were one of those Indian boys leading them across the Valley of the Big Horn?”
The words, the scenes, were all so tragically compelling and thought provoking. The words also symbolize what the hardwood and the hoop mean to Indigenous people in Montana.
Indian stars have come along prevalently recently. Phillip Malatare of Arlee, Famous Left Hand of Hardin, Damon Gros Ventre of Lodge Grass; all set records, all filled arenas, all won at an elite level… and none got Division I opportunities.
So when Battle, a former 4-star recruit out of Marysville High in northwest Washington, transferred from Washington to Montana State before last season, the Native people of Montana had a new hero, one who had a chance to slay the Griz and perform an ESPN+ and carry the torch for tribes across the region.
“RaeQuan has an unbelievable personality,” Sprinkle said. “He attracts little kids. He has that infectious personality. A lot of people from Billings and Hardin and Lodge Grass come to every game. He has the biggest following at every game. If you look behind our bench, there’s 30 people every game there just to watch RaeQuan.
“He has an immense amount of pride in the Native American beauty and he accepts that role. He and I have talked about it. The way that he represents his community, his people, the reservation he’s from, his family in Montana, it’s important to him and hopefully all those little kids see him and want to be just like him.”
Battle’s mother, Jacquie Battle, is his biggest fan, spending many nights the last two winters at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Representing for an entire region of native people drives RaeQuan, but representing for his family resonates even more deeply.
“The whole world man, my mom is my first love,” Battle said. “Her being here every step of the way means so much to me. For her to see me win a championship in high school and for her to see me win a championship in college and for her to see us chase the second one in college, she’s a proud mother to be sure.”
When Battle first transferred from Washington — an institution Jacquie said did not give her son the tools he needed to acclimate and survive socially and academically — Sprinkle made sure the former 4-star Washington state champion was not entitled.
One of their first conversations, Battle told Sprinkle, “Coach, I’m here to learn.”
“We have had some real knockdown, drag outs and we have gone at each other because I had to develop his habits where he can be a great player night in and night out,” Sprinkle said. “But that’s love.”
At Washington, Battle was embattled. At Montana State, he’s thriving. Not only is he an all-conference performer on the hardwood, but he’s also become an advocate.
He joined forces with Kola Bad Bear — a proud Crow who plays for the MSU women’s basketball team — in her leadership as a spokesperson for the “No More Stolen Sisters” initiative. This season, the duo has transferred the goal of raising awareness for human trafficking of Indigenous women in Montana to a broader initiative: “No more stolen relatives”, for which Battle has become a male representative.
“It’s hard to not get emotional when I start talking about his growth,” Sprinkle said.
“He’s such a great person with a great heart and that’s why him and Kola, they are tremendous advocates for their people and all of us. They are tremendous players. But they are also such great people and they have great energy about them and that’s why people follow them and want to follow them.
“He’s going to impact so many kids and people, whether they are Native American or not. The impact he has on people, that’s going to be his legacy here.”
His head coach’s love and his ideal opportunity at Montana State has helped Battle blossom into one of the great Native American basketball players in the country. And this weekend, he will certainly have the biggest platform.
“Basketball is really my life,” Battle said. “Every year, every season, every day that goes by, I really take that into account. I am learning and growing as I go on and it’s bringing me around the world. I’m able to see a lot of things and grow a lot.”