The slogan that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas isn’t true when it comes to Pac-12 women’s basketball. What happens at one Las Vegas high school has become a big topic of conversation in Tucson, Tempe, and Eugene.
The Centennial High Bulldogs are a juggernaut in Nevada high school basketball. The team, coached by Nevada legend Karen Weitz, just wrapped up its sixth straight title last week. It was the 12th title in program history. The first came in 2002, three years after Weitz took the helm.
This year, the Nevada state tournament kept the parents of one Arizona Wildcat from seeing their daughter help her team become the first group from Tucson to ever beat a Top 5 opponent. They were home in Vegas watching their youngest daughter carry on the family tradition as their middle daughter was helping the Wildcats beat Stanford.
Arizona junior forward Sam Thomas was a part of the Bulldogs team that won the first three of those six straight titles. Her older sister Bailey, who is a redshirt junior at UNLV, was part of the first two. Her younger sister Jade—also headed to UNLV—is a senior who just celebrated her fourth straight state crown.
Along with a younger brother, that makes four Thomas children who have played basketball at Centennial High. That has given their father, a former coach at UNLV, plenty of time to get to know the program.
“The time and commitment that the coaches put into the program,” Derek Thomas said. “I feel that they really harp on being in shape and being mentally and physically tough, and I think that’s what separates them from a lot of other programs.”
The Thomas sisters aren’t the only Division I prospects produced by Weitz and her program, either. Arizona State freshman forward Eboni Walker got to experience the joy of winning four straight titles as a Bulldog. Oregon commit Taylor Bigby, a junior at Centennial who was just named the state’s top player by MaxPreps, has already won three.
Walker and Sam Thomas spent two years as teammates, with Walker playing behind Sam until the older player left for Tucson. They were both crowned Nevada’s Gatorade Player of the Year their senior seasons. What was the secret?
“Everything was real,” Walker said. “So, if you made a mistake, she will let you know that you made a mistake no matter who you are. Whether you are the so-called best player ranked number one or you are not ranked at all, and always give the same treatment. She coached everyone the same.”
Sam agreed, adding that the lessons went beyond basketball.
“I just think the work ethic she instills in her players,” Sam said of Weitz. “She does the basic things off the court. Like, don’t be late to practice. Don’t forget things that you’re supposed to do. Show your parents respect. She really treats it like a business and she’s very professional about it. And then that just makes the court things work so much easier.”
Now, Sam and Walker face off at least twice a year for the schools that some call the most bitter rivals in the Pac-12. You’d never know it from the way the two talk about each other. Praise and admiration are the order of the day.
“It’s so fun playing against each other,” Walker said. “Especially like Sam and I, because we’re still guarding each other like we did in practices at Centennial. So when we’re playing, it’s like, ‘What did you get from Centennial to get where you’re at and what did I get from Centennial to get where I’m at?’ And then with Taylor, it’s gonna be like, ‘What did you get to be where you’re at?’”
Sam remembered Walker’s development with fondness.
“I got to see her when she was a little freshman, so I had her right off the bat,” Sam said. “She was kind of shy. Didn’t really say much, but on the court she was obviously a beast. And then, as she decided to develop and get more comfortable with the team, she was just the jokester on the team. Off the court always making jokes, always being goofy. And on the court, she’s so athletic and all the rebounds, hustling, blocking people are just awesome.”
Their friends from Las Vegas don’t put much stock in the bitterness of the schools’ rivalry, either.
“It was fun,” Sam said about the first match-up between the two teams. “We had a bunch of our teammates come out and our families, and they’re wearing half shirts with Arizona and ASU.”
But the two took different paths when it came time to prepare for college and make their commitment choices. The Thomas family moved to Las Vegas from their home in Michigan for Sam’s sophomore year of high school. Her dad reckons it was tough on Sam, but they wanted to get out of the cold and his previous coaching stint at UNLV made Las Vegas a logical choice.
Although most of Centennial’s players also play for Weitz and the Las Vegas Bulldogs in travel ball, the Thomas family felt that they needed to get Sam exposure quickly because of the move. She went to play with Cal Sparks in Southern California.
“It really just kind of got me noticed by a lot of coaches, which really helped me get Arizona,” Sam said. “EYBL is a great circuit, and all the coaches go to watch those games, so it was just kind of to get exposure.”
Sam was looking at schools in the Midwest, but Derek told her to keep a couple of schools out West on the list in case she decided to stay close to family. When Arizona noticed her, it was Cal Sparks co-founder and head coach Elbert Kinnebrew who put in a good word with the family for Arizona head coach Adia Barnes.
Others in Sam’s circle weren’t so sure.
“I was shocked,” Derek said about the decision. “I think the relationships (Sam) built with (Barnes), Sam really felt something that she was going to do something good out there. And she took a lot of criticism for it. A lot of people were laughing at her for not going to the other schools and going to Arizona, so she took quite a beating there for a while.”
That beating has turned into vindication for Barnes’ first Top 100 recruit as the Wildcats have climbed as high as No. 11 in the polls this season and are projected to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“I love Arizona,” Sam said. “I’m so glad I came here. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
For Walker, the ties to the Centennial program were more entrenched. She started participating in their program for younger players while in middle school. She also played her travel ball for Weitz and the Las Vegas Bulldogs.
Walker’s college decision was a bit different, too. It certainly didn’t cause people to question her.
Justin Emerson of the Las Vegas Journal-Review noted that the Sun Devils’ regular success in the postseason played a role in Walker’s decision. In Sam’s case, that success had to be built from scratch. Arizona is set to make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2005 later this month.
What wasn’t different is the value that both Thomas and Walker place on playing defense.
As a freshman, Thomas was the only player in the Pac-12 to be in the top 10 in rebounds, blocks and steals. As a sophomore, she became just the sixth Wildcat to ever have 50 blocks in a season. This year, she’s already racked up 46 blocks and 52 steals. No other player in the conference has at least 40 of each.
“She always was a rebounder and rim protector,” Derek said. “And she really didn’t care about scoring. She was always trying to make sure everybody else got to score.”
Walker has come off the bench as a freshman, averaging 19.5 minutes in 31 games. Despite being a reserve, she has amassed 30 total steals and 4.8 rebounds per game.
“She’s been incredible,” ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne said of Walker’s freshman campaign. “And I credit a lot of that to her background.”
For Sam, it runs in the family. She said her dad always stressed the importance of defense, and it has certainly led his daughters to success.
Sam was named a member of the five-player Pac-12 All-Defensive team by both the coaches and the media this season. Her older sister Bailey was named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Barnes marvels about Sam’s defense, pointing to her ability to block jump shots without fouling.
If the seeds held, the two friendly rivals were slated to meet in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament on Friday, Mar. 6. The California Golden Bears got in the way of that storyline, upsetting the fifth-seeded Sun Devils in the opening round on Thursday and putting an end to those hybrid jerseys for the season.
Walker can look back on the lessons she learned in high school to get through the disappointment as she and her team wait for Selection Monday.
“I wouldn’t have the mental game that I do (without Weitz),” she said. “That really helped me. Playing basketball is not all about how strong you are, how fast, how well you can shoot, but it’s good mentality and who you are and what you can push through when it comes to adversity.”
March is the perfect time to prove it.