Centralia Men, Women Prepare for March Madness
NWAC TOURNAMENT: Blazer Men, Women Hope for Deep Run in Everett
By Matt Baide
With the calendar flipping over to March, the madness on college hardwoods can officially begin and it starts this Thursday at the NWAC Basketball Tournaments at Everett Community College.
The Centralia men finished third in the West Division and faces Edmonds at 8 a.m. on Thursday in the first game of the men’s tournament. The Blazer women also finished third and will take on Olympic at 8 a.m. on Saturday in the first game of the women’s tournament.
Here’s a look at the tournament for the Blazers.
The Blazer men’s basketball team will face a familiar foe when it kicks off the NWAC Men’s Basketball Tournament on Thursday in the Edmonds Tritons. Centralia has played Edmonds three times this season, more than any other team.
In the first meeting, the Tritons won 89-80 in overtime in Centralia, overcoming a 20-point deficit with 12 minutes to go in the game. The teams met almost a week later in Edmonds, a 92-80 win by Centralia. The last meeting occurred on Dec. 29 at a tournament in Oregon City, a game won by Edmonds 82-78.
“Usually when you go up to the north, a lot of those teams play man-to-man. A lot of the teams in the west, we tend to play a lot of zone. Scores are typically higher in the north then they are in the west,” Centralia assistant coach Jonathan McMillan. “We played them pretty tough and we did what we wanted to do against them all three times we played them. We’re going to tweak a little bit of stuff offensively and defensively just to kind of keep them off balance. When you’ve played a team that many times, it’s pretty much do what you’ve been doing and then just do it better type of thing.”
Edmonds’ two leading scorers are Sean Kirk and Drew Magaoay, each at about 18 points per game. Thomas Doyle also averages double digit scoring at 10.5 points per game.
Centralia will look to sophomore Marqus Gilson to lead the team. Gilson recently signed to play next season at Central Washington University, averaging 19.3 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game this season.
“The funny thing is, his numbers are a little bit down but he’s playing like eight less minutes. He’s not nearly playing as many minutes as he was last year. We don’t really need him too, we’re a lot deeper team,” McMillan said. “I don’t ever want players like Marqus to feel like they have to score 20, they got to get 20 and 10 every night. It shouldn’t have to be like that, I should be able to step up, play less minutes, feel fresher so when they do come in, they’re more effective.”
The depth on the team this year has helped Gilson and Centralia. McMillan noted sophomores Dionte’ Dixon and LaBrandon Price as two other players the Blazers will lean on in crucial moments in the tournament. Price averages 11.3 points per game and Dixon sits at 9.1 points per game and three assists per game.
“We have a good nucleus of returning sophomores, transferring in sophomores and freshman that have made an impact. At any given night, I think we’ve had 7 or 8 guys lead our team in scoring this year which is great for us,” McMillan said. “Dionte’ (Dixon), LaBrandon (Price) and Marqus (Gilson) are very important to the team. Our other sophomores like Jaxon Clarke, Liam Murphy, Collin Prangley, are huge for us.”
Last season, the Blazers were 10-20 but were able to clinch the No. 4 spot out of the West Division into the NWAC Tournament, losing in the opening round to Walla Walla 84-80 to end the season.
This season, the Blazers were 19-10 and finished third in the West Division. The biggest difference from the two seasons is buying into the program, according to McMillan.
“These players, these guys have bought in more than any group. When I came back, me and Jason’s (Moir) plan was to just change the culture of Centralia College basketball so it’s not always, I never wanted Centralia College to be like well I can’t go to this place so I guess I’ll go to Centralia College,” McMillan said. “I want Centralia College to be a destination, so when I talk to these guys, you just need to buy in, trust us and they have.”
The 8 a.m. game time will not be easy, but the Blazers have been preparing since the bracket was announced on Sunday, practicing at 6:30 a.m. in order to get accustomed to such an early tip off.
If the Blazers win, they would play the winner of Clackamas and North Idaho. Clackamas is the No. 4 seed out of the South Division while North Idaho is the defending champion and No. 1 overall seed with a 27-2 overall record and an 18-game win streak coming into the tournament.
While the odds may be stacked against the Blazers to reach the final four next weekend back in Everett, Centralia is ready to compete and leave it all out on the court.
“Guys know that it’s our last run. This group of sophomores has been so instrumental to the group, to this school and to the culture that they know what’s coming up. We try not to put too much pressure on 18, 19, 20 year old guys, but they understand. They know that it’s one and done,” McMillan said. “We’re in the sweet 16. It’s not like it used to be where it’s like a state tournament. It’s a real college feel, one and done, Elite 8, it’s Final Four. These guys are ready, as ready as they’re gonna be. We’ve done our best to watch as much film as possible and get these guys in positions to have a chance to win the game so that’s all you can ask for.”
The Centralia women’s basketball team kicks off the NWAC Tournament on Saturday at 8 a.m. against Olympic, the No. 2 seed out of the North Division.
The Blazers played the Rangers on Dec. 9 in Centralia, a 76-32 win for Centralia with the Blazers shooting 42 percent from the field and 13 of 29 from behind the arc.
“it was probably one of the best games we’ve played. We shot the lights out, our defense was swarming. I think we beat them by about 36 or so but again, they started off the season 1-10 and then they won something like 12 games in a row so they obviously figured something out,” Centralia head coach Caleb Sells said. “Dave’s (Hawkins) a great coach, really looking forward to going up against him. He’s got some really good players, they’re a good team. The draw, we like it, I think it’s a good matchup for us so we’re going to have to come ready to play and we’re going to have to shoot the ball better than we have been.”
Those good players Sells is referring to include Danielle Monson, the Rangers’ leading scorer at 12.9 points per game. Katie Campana also averages double digit points for Olympic at 10.5 and Natalee Gordon averages 9.3 rebounds per game.
After losing 12 of their first 13 games, the Rangers have played great in 2019 with a 10-5 record and were able to finish second in the North Division.
Centralia is happy to see the calendar flip over to March after a poor February. The Blazers began West Division play in January and were 7-0 and in first place in the West Division. In February, Centralia was 1-6 and their only win came against Green River two weeks ago.
Sells attributes the change in play to the lengthier college season that players just out of high school aren’t quite used to and also shots just not falling like they did back in January.
“We were getting the same open shots that we were in the first half and first half, we were making them all…we’re getting the exact same shots we were before, they’re just not going in as well as they were and a lot of that I think is road games, a little tougher to shoot in someone else’s place,” Sells said. “We were pretty fortunate to have some home games early and I got a lot of freshman and so kind of speaking like we were talking earlier, these kids are going on their seventh month of basketball. In high school, it’s three months and you’re done, so some of the freshman are really starting to kind of see how long this season really is and I think we might have ran into a mental roadblock there along the way.”
Sells is fine with the 8 a.m. game time considering the Blazers played in that game last year, losing to Columbia Basin 61-46 to end the season.
“The nice thing about having the Egg Mcmuffin game, the first game is you don’t get a chance to get nervous. You wake up and you play, you’re not sitting there watching three or four games before you, kind of letting it get ramped up so you just wake up and you go play,” Sells said. “Last year, it felt like we played loose and relaxed and I was really happy with how it went. We’ll try to follow the same thing and approach it just like any other game, stick to our game plan, play unselfish, play hard and when your number is called, be ready to answer.”
Centralia is led in scoring by two freshman. Piper Cai leads the team at 12.7 points per game and close behind her is Lindsey Nurmi — a Black Hills alum — at 12.1 points per game.
“Piper, whenever she gets the ball in her hand, I get just as excited as the fans to see what she’s going to do. She just has a way of getting to the hoop and hanging in the air for what seems like forever, just some of the most unorthodox shots but she’s got such a soft touch they go in,” Sells said. “Lindsey, she’s our leader, plays about 38 minutes a game this year for us and she gets us into our offense but she also gets her own shots. We play as well as those two play, that’s for sure.”
Sells will be looking for other contributions from the rest of the Blazers in order to advance in a win or go home scenario.
“That’s the kind of the thing with this team is our two leading scorers only average 12 points per game because any given night, I think Devanie Kleemeyer a couple times put up 16 points coming off the bench,” Sells said. “Rachel Wilkerson had a game where she scored 14 coming off the bench. Last time we played this team, Becca Snaza had 15 points coming off the bench so it kind of depends on the flow of the game and just how it fits each of these kids different talents.”
If the Blazers win, they will face the winner of Big Bend and Mount Hood. The Vikings are tied for the best record in the NWAC at 25-4.
Regardless of how the bracket shakes out, Centralia hopes to be back in Everett next weekend.
“I knew being a small team, I think I told my assistants back in November, if this team is going to make a run in the tournament, we’re going to have to be a great 3-point shooting team and our press has to be outstanding and the press has been getting better and better,” Sells said. “Sadly, our shooting has not. Back in January, I thought our shooting was getting there. We’re running the offense right, we’re getting the looks we want, we just gotta hit them. Everyone’s 0-0 right now so if we can hit those shots and put pressure on people, see what happens.”