Centennial embraces old school, keeps winning

The Centennial Bulldogs captured the 2017 ‘Iolani Classic championship on Saturday. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser (Dec. 9, 2017)

In a world where high school coaches are hired and fired in the blink of an eye, or walk away in the midst of crisis, sometimes the process is forgotten.

Not so at Centennial High School in Las Vegas, where Karen Weitz is in her 24th season as head coach of the girls basketball program. The Bulldogs swept through the ‘Iolani Classic in their first visit to the islands, toppling Oregon 6A defending champion Southridge 53-43 in the final on Saturday. Wentz’s team won the Nevada 4A state title last season, a three-peat, and finished at No. 4 in national rankings.

“We’re one of those old-school teams that believes defense wins games. Hold them to 45 points or less and we can win the game,” said Weitz, who entered the season with a career mark of 613-77.

Without all the accolades, the Bulldogs fit their school nickname. Tough, rugged, full-time contact on defense. Unselfish, smart ball movement on offense. But mainly, they simply find ways to win despite being a relatively small team by mainland standards. Eboni Walker, the tourney’s most valuable player, is a 5-foot-11, mini Draymond Green with physical play in the paint, using position and leverage to board against the likes of Southridge’s 6-4 Cameron Brink.

“I just play as hard as I can and work with my teammates,” said Walker, a junior.

Walker didn’t have to try walling off Brink by herself. It took a team effort, with defenders like 5-9 Daejah Phillips bringing help.

“Fronting people (on the post) makes people uncomfortable, but it takes a lot of teamwork. They did a good job fronting the big girl and didn’t let her get a lot of touches, getting in her verticality. We talked about when Louisville beat Baylor while Brittney Griner was there,” the coach said, referring to the 6-9 All-American. “We drill rebounding into them for 10 minutes every day. Triangle rebounding, three people always around the basket on offense.”

Justice Ethridge came up huge in the final with 25 points. At 5-8, she transcends her size with hoops IQ and a smart, opportunistic offensive game.

Walker’s coast-to-coast blur is something basic statistics don’t reflect. A game changer.

“We do that with all our kids. We try to let them all handle the ball. I’m one of the tallest people in our program,” Weitz quipped. “We teach them to be the best all-around players the can be, to be versatile.”

“Justice has been with our (youth) program for seven, eight years. She has so much game to her, but she’ll only use what we need from her. Mid-range. 3-pointers,” Weitz said of Ethridge, who has committed to hometown UNLV. “They don’t really know everything she does.”

Perhaps the most reflective player, though, of Weitz’s tenacity is point guard Aja Phoumiphat, a 5-5 junior who hounded Southridge ballhandlers from start to finish. She was a velcro on-ball defender. How do you measure the value of a willing, relentless underclassman like that?

“Aja has a great motor and IQ. She’s so unselfish,” Weitz said. “Sometimes, we’d like her to take more shots. She did a phenomenal job in the championship game. She’s a good kid who listens well.”

The emphasis on defense and work ethic isn’t just cerebral. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, Weitz and assistant coaches are barking out instructions, usually repetitive, detailed orders. The Bulldogs certainly obliged and obeyed. In some ways, Weitz looks and coaches like the late Pat Summitt, who coached Tennessee for nearly four decades. Her Tennessee squad that featured freshman Chamique Holdsclaw played in a Kona tournament during the 1990s, and Summitt ran practice the way she coached: detailed, focused and business-like.

“Chamique, if you want to act like a freshman,” Summitt offered, “I will treat you like one.”

Tennessee went on to win the national title that season, the first of three straight NCAA crowns.

Like Summitt, Weitz holds her players accountable, and holds them to a high standard, particularly on the defensive side of the court. Sometimes, the best coaching in the game of basketball is done at the prep level. Centennial came from a the city of bright lights and temptation, but ultimately played basketball like a gritty, small-town team with unending passion for the game and each other. Weitz sounded like a coach who would enjoy another trip to the islands in the near future.

“I think the atmosphere, the hospitality, the facilities we fantastic. We do a lot of tournaments, including our own, and this is at the top,” she said.

Update: Centennial lands at No. 4 and Southridge at No. 20 on the latest ESPN national rankings.


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