Sam Pendleton prefers to pass.

Pete Conway, head coach of the United Tribes and Technical College men's basketball team, calls his point guard a "throwback." He's also a perfect fit for the Thunderbirds.

It was a long and winding road for the Morton, Minn., native to Bismarck, but his perseverance is paying off. Pendleton currently leads NJCAA Division II in assists at 11.1 per game, including gaudy single-game totals of 19 and 20 this season.

"I didn't really know anything about Tribes before I got here," Pendleton said. "I've really enjoyed it. It's a really fun group of guys to be around and to play with."

Pendleton began his collegiate career at a JUCO in northern California, but said, "Things didn't go well there." He sat out last year to get his academic affairs in order.

United Tribes coach Pete Conway had recruited Pendleton out of Redwood Valley High School and the two had remained in contact. Pendleton also ended up having another tie to the program. His brother Derek had signed with Tribes.

"Pete's a really good coach. He just lets you play," Sam Pendleton said of Conway. "If you make a mistake, he's not going to get mad and jump all over you. He trusts his players and gives us the freedom to just go play."

Conway knew Pendleton would thrive in his system, although even he has been surprised by his John Stockton-like passing ability.

"There will be times he'll make a pass and I'll look at coach (Erik) Abbey and say, 'How'd he see that,'" Conway said. "He's kind of a throwback in that he wants to pass. He's pretty selfless about it. He doesn't care about points, or even assists. He just likes to play."

Through 11 games, nine of them wins for the Thunderbirds, Pendleton has 119 assists. Twice already this season, he's broken the single-game school record for assists, including 20 in last Friday's game against Miles Community College. Amazingly, he had dropped 15 dimes by halftime, a feat he just shrugged off.

"You don't really think about stats during the course of the game," Pendleton said. "We have a lot of good shooters on this team. I just get them the ball and they make shots. Team-wise, we do a really good job of sharing the ball. When you're on a team like that, it makes it a lot of fun."

The Thunderbirds have five players averaging in double figures. Rob McClain, who Pendleton said he really enjoys playing with, leads in scoring at 17.9 per game. Xavier Norris (14.6), Turtle Mountain product Shayden Keplin (13.6), Pendleton (13.5) and Montel Carlow (10.1) are also capable of going off.

"We don't have a guy averaging 30 points per game, but we have really good balance. From one game to the next it can be a different guy leading us in scoring every night," Conway said. "We have a good group of guys that are happy for each other when they score. They're unselfish. They don't care who scores as long as somebody does."

Putting points on the board never is a problem for Conway's program. Heading into this weekend's home doubleheader on Friday and Saturday, the Thunderbirds are averaging nearly 104.5 points per game.

"It's a fun brand of basketball to play," Pendleton said. "It always seems like we have open shooters, and our post guys are really good at finishing. I try to get them the ball and they do their thing."

Pendleton has hopes of playing Division I or II basketball down the road. He's been focusing on his grades while letting his play on the court speak for itself.

"Things happen for a reason and I'm happy to be here," he said. "So far the season has been going really well. We have a really unselfish group of guys. We just want to win as many games as we can and see where that takes us."

Reach Tribune sports editor Dave Selvig at (701) 250-8246 or