Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Melanie Isbell is frequently the smallest player on the court. The Centennial High senior is also frequently the best player on the court.
Yes, the point guard is undersized at 5-foot-4, and with that comes some disadvantages in a sport where taller athletes tend to have more success. But Isbell has still left a mark of success by winning three state championships, receiving numerous postseason awards, and earning a full scholarship to play at UNLV. She leads our Super Seven preseason team.
“It isn’t only her size,” Centennial coach Karen Weitz said. “It’s her mental game. Nobody is more nitty and gritty.”
That mentality includes a persistence — almost an obsession — to do everything imaginable to be a winner, everything from extra work in the offseason to taking a charge on game day. It’s the only way Isbell knows how to play.
“The first look I get when people look at me is, ‘Are you a gymnast?’ No, I’m a basketball player,” she said. “Being short you know you have to work three times as hard and you have to be in the gym longer. With that comes intangibles, things like leadership, being vocal and getting good grades.”
Isbell has become so reliable that she’s an extension of Weitz on the floor. She, after all, has been in the system for four years, helping Centennial go from Nevada power to consistently in the top 20 national rankings. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 14 in the preseason by USA Today.
If there’s ever miscommunication on the court, “All I have to do is look at her and we get back on the same page because her knowledge of the game is just superior,” Weitz said.
That’s one of the reasons why UNLV recruited her. She’s one of four from Centennial in the program or committed to join the program, as the Lady Rebels eye Centennial’s championship pedigree continuing in the Mountain West.
“A proven winner,” UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said of Isbell in a statement. “She makes sure her team is always in a position to win championships. Melanie is a great leader with a high basketball IQ as well.”
Isbell averaged nearly 10 points and four assists per game last season, which is strong when considering the top-seven players on Centennial, including four others on the Super Seven, are Division I recruits and there’s only one basketball. It’s also impressive because most Centennial games are shortened by the mercy rule, meaning less court time for standout players.
Centennial is again the unquestioned favorites to win the state championship. They were considered the same last season, but needed to rally from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit in the title game to beat Liberty. That gives leaders like Isbell plenty of motivation for the drive to win four championships in four seasons, knowing some team out there is longing to make a name for themselves against Nevada’s best.
And against one of Nevada’s great players, regardless of height.
“Growing up, I’ve always known it's heart over height,” she said.
Here’s the rest of the Super Seven:
Taylor Bigby, Centennial
6-foot, sophomore guard
Bigby, the nation’s No. 15 overall recruit by Prospects Nation for 2021, already has scholarship offers from a who’s who of college programs — Oregon, Louisville, Ohio State and Georgia, to name a few of the double-digit offers. Weitz sees firsthand at daily practice why Bigby is highly sought after. “Her ability in the open court is unmatched,” the coach said. “Having a girl with her size, her speed and defensive ability (is rare).”
Georgia Ohiaeri, Bishop Gorman
6-foot senior forward
Ohiaeri, who averaged 10 points per game last season, has become a force for the Gaels on both ends of the court. “She does everything. She is one of those special players,” Gorman coach Kevin Nixon said. It starts with her defense. “She blocks shots. Not too many girls in women’s basketball blocks,” Nixon said. “She blocks everything.” Her offense is just as impressive. “She can hit the mid-range shot. She can attack the basket. She will do it all for you,” the coach said. And that’s not the only reason why Nixon is impressed. “Besides that, she’s an awesome kid,” he raves. “Almost too good to be true.”
Daejah Phillips, Centennial
5-foot-9 junior forward
Phillips, who averaged 9.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore, has impressed her coach by doing the little things. “The girl can rebound,” Weitz said. “That’s tough to find.” Phillips has improved as a defender in the offseason — so much that it’s become a strength. And, of course, she’s a talented scorer. “She is very dangerous,” Weitz said.
Jade Thomas, Centennial
5-foot-9 junior guard
Thomas, who is verbally committed to UNLV, is the daughter of a coach — and it shows. “Everybody needs that glue person like Jade,” Weitz said. “She will never do a whole lot to hurt you. She’s very smart and knows the game.” She’s also an accomplished outside shooter, draining a game-ending 3-pointer to force overtime in last year’s state championship game in helping the Bulldogs win another title. Thomas is the third in her family to be named to the Super Seven. “She does all the little things,” Weitz said. “She’s a talker (on the court). It’s hard to find kids nowadays who have that skill.”
Eboni Walker, Centennial
6-foot senior forward
Walker, who is ESPN’s No. 43 recruit for 2019, averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season. She signed last month with Arizona State. For as good of an all-around player as she’s become, there are times when coaches would like her to be less unselfish and take over games with her offense. “Everyone will talk about her athleticism because you won’t match her athletically,” Weitz said. “We are still trying to get her to be more of a scorer because she’s determined to always be a team player.” You can argue she’s the state’s top defender, if not one of the nation’s best. More important, “she’s a great teammate,” Weitz said.
Desi-Rae Young, Desert Oasis
6-foot junior center
Young, who averaged 11 points and seven rebounds per game last year, has that competitive fire that makes her a force near the basket, Diamondbacks coach Laurie Evans-Gygax said. “She is probably the most athletic person I have ever coached,” she said. “She literally has no fear. She has a real energetic fire that doesn’t come around as much anymore.” Whether it’s against state power Centennial or a team Desert Oasis beats by the mercy rule of the running clock, Evans-Gygax says Young always brings the same mentality. “She loves the game and always plays extremely hard,” the coach said. “It doesn’t matter who she is playing against.” Young, who has a scholarship offer from UNLV, has just started to get recruiting attention. “She is one of those players who fell under the radar for two years,” Evans-Gygax said. “She is someone everyone has to watch out for.”