Ezrah Aukuso-Vaigafa believes two of his strengths on a basketball court are “making everyone around me better by getting them involved and just being vocal.” The Rongotai College and New Zealand Under-17 point guard has plenty to talk about at present. Last week at the National Under-17 championships, Aukuso-Vaigafa was named tournament MVP as Wellington captured the title in a thrilling decider against Auckland.
Earlier in the month, Aukuso-Vaigafa returned from the FIBA Under-17 World Championships in Argentina where New Zealand competed for the first time. With 2:52 remaining on the clock in the National Under-17 final on Saturday, Wellington and Auckland were tied at 84-84. In a game which featured multiple lead changes, Wellington coach Terry Stallworth was forced to call a timeout to try and suppress an Auckland rally. Why was Wellington able to pull though and prevail 95-90?
“I believe every player from the starting five to the bench had a significant role to play. Without the support of bench we wouldn’t of been able to go out and perform. Their constant feedback and positive words enhanced our performance every time we stepped back out on the floor. They were always hyped up and locked in. Personally I had faith in every player who went out on the court to perform,” Aukuso-Vaigafa responds.
Aukuso-Vaigafa, who scored 18 points in the final, made a crucial pass to Tafara Gapare who nailed a clutch three before Wellington outscored Auckland 4-1 from the freethrow line in the last sixty seconds. Delivering under pressure is a quality Aukuso-Vaigafa is growing – exposed to the best youngsters in the World in the past month.
“The FIBA World Cup was an amazing experience. I got to witness players at the highest level everyday. The talent was unbelievable and being in that environment is something I won’t forget and will try and learn from,” Aukuso-Vaigafa enthuses.
New Zealand finished 14th out of 16 countries, earning their first ever win at the tourney 62-57 over China. While an obvious highlight, Aukuso-Vaigafa identifies another game as a standout.
“Every game was difficult as the level of play from all the countries was very high, but the one game that really stood out was the game against the French. Being able to play the team that finished second was a really good measure of how far you we had come, but also how good you have to be,” Aukuso-Vaigafa observers.
Rongotai College didn’t have what it took to compete in Wellington basketball, languishing in lowly positions for many years. That has changed in the past few seasons. Aukuso-Vaigafa was a member of two Rongotai teams who won the North Island junior regionals and last year guided the First V to their first top eight finish at Nationals in two decades. What’s driving Rongotai’s resurgence?
“Mainly the team environment and the bond we have with each other. We are like a family always looking out for one another. The players and coaches know each other so well we trust one another to go out and perform to our strengths,” Aukuso-Vaigafa answered.
Last year Aukuso-Vaigafa was MVP of the National Under-15 tournament also won by Wellington. In 2016 he was a member of the Rongotai junior 3×3 team which claimed a national title. This week Aukuso-Vaigafa is in Los Angeles for an on-campus college basketball experience.
Wellington Under-17 Nationals Results
Pool Play: Hawke’s Bay, 12-68
Pool Play: Rotorua, 109-68
Pool Play: Tauranga, 107-61
Pool Play: Canterbury, 95-80
Quarter-Final: Tasman, 109-78
Semi-Final: North Harbour, 130-113
Final: Auckland, 95-90
Wellington tournament selections: Ezrah Aukuso-Vaigafa, Tafara Gapare, Ezekiel Stallworth
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