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Former prep star shines as assistant

By John Varlas

The more Ridgeway girls basketball coach Tonya Willett thought about it, the more sense it made.

One of Willett’s former players, LaKendra Phillips, dropped by the coach’s office back in September. With her degree from Ole Miss in hand, Phillips wasn’t merely paying a social call, as Willett soon found out.

“At first, I thought she was coming by just to talk,” Willett said. “She said she wasn’t doing anything just yet, but that she was interested in teaching and coaching.

“And it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I could help her and help the program at the same time.”

Done, and done.

Phillips has been a welcome addition to the Roadrunners this season, and Willett credits her with being a key ingredient in their success. Ridgeway improved to 6-0 with Tuesday night’s 78-27 victory over Kirby and is ranked second in The Commercial Appeal’s Dandy Dozen.

And Phillips brings more to the table than a garden-variety assistant. As an athletic 5-9 guard at Ridgeway, Phillips had sterling credentials, scoring 2,222 points while winning Class AAA Miss Basketball honors in 2006, the year she led the Roadrunners to a 35-3 season and their last appearance in the state tournament.

She signed with Florida before transferring to Ole Miss for her final three seasons. While Phillips was never a star in the SEC, it’s her knowledge of the college game that Willett wants her to pass along.

“I see the game from both sides, as a player and as a coach,” Phillips said. “I want to push them to play tough and be ready as far as the next level.”

A point of emphasis this year is helping star Hasina Muhammad. A versatile 6-0 senior who is ranked as the state’s No. 2 prospect according to ESPN Hoopgurlz, Muhammad signed with Auburn during the November early period. Phillips’ job will be to prepare Muhammad for the college game.

“It’s one thing to watch it on TV,” said Willett. “But to share the experience of what it’s like to play against a Pat Summitt (team), it’s just so practical.”

And Muhammad says she is soaking up all the advice Phillips has to offer.

“She’s showing me what it’s like on the next level,” she said. “Little moves to get open, intensity on defense. She makes me go harder.”

Literally. At just 22 and only a few months removed from her last college game, Phillips is a force when she joins the Roadrunners on the floor during practice.

“When I practice with them, I try to entice them to work harder,” Phillips said. “To do whatever they have to do to be better.”

Said Willett: “She’s out there giving blood, sweat and tears. She tells them, ‘When I played, I wanted every steal, every rebound.’

“It’s not about the dollars; it’s not a high-paying job. She had all the accolades as a player, except winning a state championship. She’s saying, ‘I want y’all to be that much better.'”

Aside from keeping her competitive on the court, Phillips’ youth benefits her in another important way. She’s close enough in age that the Ridgeway players view her as a confidante of sorts, someone they can identify with more easily.

“She can relate,” Willett said. “She holds them accountable.”

But Willett makes sure the lines don’t get blurred.

“They don’t call her ‘Ken. She’s coach ‘Ken,” she said. “They know it’s a fine line, but she’s the adult, and they respect that.”

— John Varlas: 529-2350

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