Thousands of miles away from the Twin Cities, in the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, three Minnesota natives who bonded through St. Thomas have helped ignite support for an entire country's basketball development.
There's nothing Marcus Alipate loves more than talking about his time playing basketball for the Tommies a decade ago. The same goes for recent graduate Riley Miller. And Will DeBerg can brag about his 2011 Division III national championship for St. Thomas.
Another basketball program that the three of them cherish is Tonga's men's national team. Alipate is the team captain. DeBerg is the head coach. Miller is the top assistant.
"Hopefully, we'll build this thing, so we're pretty legit in a couple years," said DeBerg, a former assistant under longtime St. Thomas coach Johnny Tauer.
Alipate, DeBerg and Miller proudly wore Tonga's red and white colors together this winter as they competed in the team's second consecutive Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands. In 2018, the country returned to FIBA competition for the first time in 18 years. After an impressive run to beat several more established Polynesian countries over the years, Tonga continues to build basketball interest.
"It's always been rugby first — and basketball had been on the backburner," said Alipate, who is of Tongan descent. "I think now as we're kind of building the program, these guys coming to play could potentially have basketball as their main sport."
Alipate, the son of late former Vikings linebacker Tuineau Alipate, had two brothers play college football, including ex-Gopher Moses. But Alipate continued to chase his basketball dreams at Bloomington Jefferson, at St. Thomas (2011-15) and now as a pro player for nearly a decade.
Playing for Tonga, the native land of his family, was something he never thought possible until being approached about helping to restart the team while playing professionally in New Zealand in 2017.
"I'm excited," Alipate said. "From six years ago to where we are now, it's like night and day. We came in with six guys in our first competition, two of which we picked up at the last minute. We didn't even have a place to stay and had no training camp. Now we even have a women's program [started in 2022] — and great coaches. It's been a journey, but we're on the up and up."
DeBerg thought his future might be in college coaching while with Tauer's staff for five years, but he left the program to pursue a career in sales the year before the Tommies went from D-III to D-I in 2021.
That same year, DeBerg was at a former St. Thomas teammate's wedding when he started chatting with Alipate about the vacant Tonga head coaching job. They were college teammates. Before DeBerg knew it, he was flying to the South Pacific to begin an inspiring basketball journey he never saw coming.
Earlier this month, Tonga finished 2-2 in the Pacific Games, the South Pacific version of the Olympics with 24 countries and about 5,000 athletes in different sports. They missed out on advancing to the Asia Cup by a point-differential tiebreaker.
"That was brutal," DeBerg said. "But we're trending in the right direction for sure. We've got a handful of college players now. We're excited about it. I'm not Tongan, obviously, but basketball is growing like crazy in that part of the world."
After finishing his college career at St. Thomas last season, Miller is pursuing a pro career in Australia, but his experience with his fellow Tommies grads turning around Tonga basketball was special.
"I didn't know what I was getting into when I signed up for this," Miller said. "But for never really traveling outside of the U.S. and experiencing different cultures, it was really nice to be a part of something like that. We just came together [as a family] right away."
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Five Minnesotans who stood out:
Mara Braun, Gophers
In a 94-88 double overtime win vs. Drake on Saturday, Braun became the first Division I player since 2009 to have 33-plus points, 50-plus minutes and zero turnovers in a game.
Dawson Garcia, Gophers
The 6-11 junior had the highest-scoring game for a Big Ten player this season Sunday with a career-high 36 points on 12-for-25 shooting at Ohio State, including 28 points in the second half.
Maddyn Greenway, Providence Academy
Picking up where she left off last season, the No. 1 sophomore in Minnesota is leading the state in scoring with nearly 40 points per game, highlighted by a 43-point triple-double in a 95-86 victory over Hortonville (Wis.).
Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City
The ex-Minnehaha Academy star overtook Victor Wembanyama in the NBA's early rookie of the year race after averaging 18.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.9 blocks in November.
Jayden Moore, Hopkins
Hopkins' elite backcourt didn't disappoint in its opening act with Moore and Anthony Smith combining for 60 points. Moore had 28 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in beating Orono 93-75.
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9: Best winning streak for the Orlando Magic since 2010-11 — and Minnesotan Jalen Suggs scored in double figures in each of the eight contests he played.
15: The Timberwolves were the surprise of the NBA's first month, taking the top spot in the West with a 15-4 record, the franchise's best start through 19 games (same record as Boston before its 122-112 loss to the Pacers in Indianapolis on Monday).
13: National ranking for Colorado State, coached by Minnesota native Niko Medved, after an 8-0 start, including wins over rival Colorado, Washington and No. 10 Creighton.
51: Single-game school scoring mark for St. Cloud Tech set by senior Tameron Ferguson in his first game Monday vs. Hiawatha Collegiate (also had eight steals).
400: Victories for the Gophers women's program at Williams Arena after its double-overtime win over Drake.
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Basketball Across Minnesota will be published weekly on startribune.com. Don't be a stranger on X after reading, as chatting about these stories makes them even more fun to share. Thanks, Marcus (@Marcus_R_Fuller on X).