How A Rule Made Basketball Unrecognizable In Sin City

Centennial High School in Las Vegas could receive a penalty if they beat their opponent by more than 49 points due to state policy.

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LAS VEGAS -- Pompoms rattling and voices raising, the cheerleaders sway on the baseline, yelling with everything they've got to urge on the Centennial High School girls' basketball team. "Get fired up! Get fired up!" Their kicks and hops are punctuated in their home gym by cheers of "Bulldogs are the best!" As the clock winds down, clapping fans rise to their feet, chanting names of their favorite players.

It's senior night, but there's really no reason to celebrate the action on the court. It has been an eternity -- 19 minutes and 2 seconds of game time to be exact; well more than half of the 32-minute game -- since a basket has been scored or anything resembling the game James Naismith created has happened.

Centennial is up 51-2 on fellow Las Vegas school Bonanza, and has been since the second quarter. Centennial has spent the entire second half finding creative ways not to score.

They've ignored open looks at the basket, played keep-away and intentionally committed lane violations on free throws. To usher in the final buzzer, a Centennial guard holds the ball for the final 1:06, even spinning it on her finger Harlem Globetrotters-style. Her teammates aren't cutting; the defense isn't defending. Everyone is just plain standing around.

"I don't think I've ever been so happy to see the end of anything in my life," one Centennial parent says. "That was ugly."

Don't blame the players. They're merely following a Nevada rule: Whatever you do, don't win a basketball game by 50 points.

***

Here's how Centennial High School's 51-2 blowout against Bonanza looked on the scoreboard.

In 2011, after years of lopsided results and accusations of dominant programs running up scores, the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association created a rule hoping to encourage sportsmanship and prevent embarrassing scores.

"There were a number of complaints and concerns about several coaches and several schools running up the score and, of course, no one thought this was very sportsmanlike," says Ray Mathis, who oversees Las Vegas athletics and is one of nine members on the NIAA's Board of Control. "We didn't want kids to be embarrassed, so we felt like we needed to come up with a process so at least we could get coaches to start thinking about not humiliating kids or getting them in a situation where they felt they had to defend themselves or not try out or be on a team because they were too embarrassed."

The board developed the now-controversial rule in which teams can't win by a margin of more than 49 points, and if they do, coaches are required to submit documentation explaining how it happened and how they tried to prevent it. If it happens three times in a season, the winning coach is suspended. The rule also institutes a running clock in the second half after a lead gets to 40 points.

Over the years, one-sided scores across the country -- among them a 108-1 win in Ohio on Wednesday night, a 161-2 victory in California in 2015 and a 100-0 blowout in Texas in 2009 -- have earned national attention and sparked debate about sportsmanship and fairness. Nevada's rule has succeeded in sparing teams from that mortification, but what has happened instead might be even more problematic.

"We don't get to play a full game," Centennial senior and West Virginia signee Bailey Thomas says. "We go hard all the way until we just can't score anymore. We just tell everyone on the court, 'No more scoring.' We then just have to get it together and pass the ball around the rest of the game."

"It kinda sucks," Bonanza freshman Maysan Raleigh says. "We really just stand there and go through the motions and stuff."

Centennial, the reigning state champs, is ranked fourth in the nation and can compete with the best of the best across the country, but it's tough to even get a game against its league opponents. With the exception of crosstown rival Bishop Gorman, which Centennial plays Friday night in a regional championship game, the Bulldogs rarely break a sweat. The result? Games that almost always end in wins hovering around 49 points with second halves made up of little to no scoring. Centennial has won its league games this season by an average of just under 47 points. In Centennial's first game against Bonanza this year, the Bulldogs won 53-4 after a scoreless second half.

Centennial participates in tournaments all over the country throughout the season against other elite teams in large part to remain competitive and be able to play a full 32 minutes without being subjected to a mercy rule.

It's no coincidence the team scheduled a game against national power Mater Dei (Santa Ana, California) less than a week before the end of the regular season. The Bulldogs won that meeting, 70-45.

***
Robert Beck for ESPN

Karen Weitz questions whether the game her players are playing is even basketball.

Coached by Karen Weitz, Centennial has grown into a state and national power since the school opened in 1999. After coaching at nearby Cheyenne High School, Weitz has been at Centennial since its inception -- minus one season when she coached at University of the Pacific. Initially finding her team on the other end of lopsided games, she has spent the past 16 years transforming the program and winning seven state titles. "When I started coaching, 20 or something years ago, Vegas basketball was horrible," Weitz says.

I've had a player tell me she will be dribbling the ball down the floor and will start doing the math to determine if she can shoot again or not. That's not basketball to me.
Centennial coach Karen Weitz

"Reno had won the state championship the last 21 years in a row. We were the first ones to win it in the large school category in the 21st or 22nd year, but prior to that, the Reno schools were kicking our ass by 40 or 50 points.

"At first I thought they just must be that much better than us, but I kept scheduling games with them. I started a holiday tournament and invited them, just so our team could improve. I started to talk to those coaches and find out what they were doing. I embraced pretty much their whole model. Little by little, we started to clip down the points until we finally won."

With an enrollment of more than 3,000 students, Centennial has one of the best athletic departments in the area, earning state titles across multiple sports. The girls' varsity basketball team plays together year round, competing for Weitz's club team, the Las Vegas Bulldogs, during the offseason -- an idea she learned from her peers in Reno. Their chemistry and ease on the court is apparent even during practice.

Though Weitz adamantly denies recruiting allegations, many of her players and their families admittedly move into the school district simply for the chance to play for her team.

Bonanza, by contrast, is one of Las Vegas' older high schools. Opening its doors in 1976, the school was an athletic power and won several state titles, including in basketball. In recent years, Bonanza has not been as successful. A zoning change resulted in many students transferring to Spring Valley High School when it opened in 2004. There are now just under 2,000 students enrolled.

Working with an ever-changing student body and competing internally with the growing popularity of flag football, only "28 or 30" girls showed up to tryouts in the fall. All of them were kept to fill the varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams.

***
Robert Beck for ESPN

Mike Moulchin and his Bonanza players only got to celebrate one basket against Centennial.

Bonanza is dressing only seven players on this late January day. It's a stark contrast to the team on the other side of the gym. Centennial has 15, an impressive and talented 15 at that.

"On the bus going [to the game], you know, you're getting handled," says coach Mike Moulchin, a longtime area coach in his first month at Bonanza. "I tell them before games like this, 'Don't look at the scoreboard.' ... I tell them that we want to do everything we can to get as close to their level as we can. But don't look at the scoreboard.

"It's a workout. It's a chance for us to improve our skills against some phenomenal basketball players and some incredible coaches. We all know what's going to happen tonight, so don't get yourselves down. Just come out and play the game."

It's a sound strategy -- until the jump ball.

In the first 72 seconds, Centennial races to a 10-0 lead. The Bengals struggle to even inbound the ball against the stifling press. Weitz calls off her press 2:30 into the game. It's already 17-0. The Bulldogs can do no wrong, and can do it all. It's a dangerous combination.

Centennial rotates players, getting in 10 before the first quarter ends. And then, much to the delight of its small group of supporters, Bonanza scores a basket with 3:21 left in the period. It will be their only one of the game.

Robert Beck for ESPN

For a big chunk of the game, Bonanza didn't even bother to play much defense because it knew Centennial wouldn't try to score.

Centennial, meanwhile, puts on a dazzling display -- layups, 3-pointers, drives, defense. By the end of the first eight-minute quarter, the Bulldogs lead 33-2.

"We just play our game until the rule goes into effect," Weitz says. "If it hits us at the end of one quarter, that's it. I think we just have to follow the norm as much as we can. If it's normal to press until we're up by 20, then we're going to press until we're up by 20. If that happens in two minutes, well then it's two minutes. If it's two quarters, it's two quarters.

"People sometimes say we're unsportsmanlike and say, 'You know you're going to play [an overmatched team] so why are you pressing?' But if that's our style, how do we get better at it if we're never allowed to play it?"

During the break, the coaches have the same look of dejection on their faces. While the already-large deficit is bad, they both know this game is about to get a whole lot worse.

The second quarter begins much as the first -- with a barrage of baskets from the Bulldogs. Suddenly the score is 48-2, with players and fans alike nervously looking at the scoreboard. It's standard for officials to wait until the second half to start the running clock, but today they opt to start it halfway through the second quarter.

"My players worry about it too much," Weitz says of the 50-point rule. "I've had a player tell me she will be dribbling the ball down the floor and will start doing the math to determine if she can shoot again or not. That's not basketball to me. She said that and I thought, 'This is sad, this is really sad.' "

With 3:02 left in the half, senior Alexandria Dockery scores an easy bucket and gets fouled. She nails her free throw, and the score is 51-2. Weitz subs everyone on the floor.

The players know the routine. The last three minutes of the half is a painfully long game of keep-away. The Bulldogs pass, and the Bengals occasionally play defense, knowing their opposition won't shoot no matter how lax their defense gets.

There are more than a few sighs and eye rolls from the parents of both teams. Finally it's halftime. The dance team takes the court, and for a brief moment it feels like a normal high school game again.

"People in the stands tend to tune out [when things get out of hand]," says Doug Wilbur, Centennial's athletic administrator. "The rule has been around for four or five years now, so everyone kind of knows it, but it does take some of the spirit or student enthusiasm out of the game for a bit."

During or after games like this, their question is 'Why does it matter?' I say, 'You're preparing yourself for life. For when you have a job. You're preparing to work through hardships, and through bad times, and you're learning to work with people.' Every experience matters.
Bonanza coach Mike Moulchin

Centennial comes back from the break and goes through layup lines and shooting drills; Bonanza doesn't bother. Instead, players huddle by the foul line.

As the third quarter unfolds, Bonanza senior guard Nicole Chaffin-Corbin makes what appears to be a wholehearted effort to steal the ball, but she's unsuccessful. She stands motionless for a brief moment, the frustration on her face says it all.

"You have to put things into perspective," Moulchin says. "You have to keep kids believing, and you have to keep them believing that it matters for you to keep getting better. But then during or after games like this, their question is, 'Why does it matter?' I say, 'You're preparing yourself for life. For when you have a job. You're preparing to work through hardships, and through bad times, and you're learning to work with people.' Every experience matters. I just have to always remind them of that."

Bonanza continues to foul, hoping to get the ball back. At the free throw line, Centennial players heave the ball off the backboard, if they even bother to shoot at all. Some players, in fear of accidentally making a basket, step over the line to get called for a violation instead.

The running clock continues. The score at the end of the third quarter remains 51-2.

Weitz doesn't even join the huddle. She sits on the bench with her head in her hands, knowing there is nothing she can say that would matter. After the game, she says she was "disgusted."

Bonanza is now down to four players, the other three have fouled out and look relieved to spend the rest of this game on the bench. Less than two minutes into the quarter, Chaffin-Corbin notches her fifth foul and heads off the floor.

It is now 3-on-5.

For the last five minutes, Centennial players take turns dribbling, cradling and passing the ball. Perhaps even daydreaming. The three remaining Bengals stand still, watching the clock and willing it to tick away.

***
Robert Beck for ESPN

The game ended with five Centennial players on the court playing keep-away against three Bonanza players.

In the postgame handshake line, it's impossible to know which team won; everyone looks equally miserable.

"Something has to change," a defeated (but winning) Weitz says. "If you made a rule at one point, there's nothing wrong with changing stuff. It's not working, so fix it. [The NIAA] wants to defend their reasoning for doing it, but no one is agreeing with your reasoning but you."

While Moulchin would have to deal with a team handling an excruciating loss regardless of the rule, the Bonanza coach found himself pondering both sides. "I like it and don't like it," Moulchin says.

"It's obvious why I would like it, [Centennial] could have scored 200 points against us. But what I don't like about it is, if you're the 12th or 13th kid on the floor and you've been practicing just as hard as the rest of your teammates but then you don't even have a chance to shoot it. That's ridiculous."

You're just standing there, watching the other team pass the ball over and over again, and you can't just take the ball because you're going to embarrass yourself. And your whole family is there to see it.
Bonanza freshman Maysan Raleigh

Players from both sides are perplexed, too. While Bonanza's concerns deal mostly with feelings of embarrassment and shame, their peers at Centennial are concerned about a lack of preparation against higher-quality opposition in the state tournament and their own statistics when it comes to being recruited to play at the next level.

"We can't reach our individual stats," Centennial junior forward Megan Jefferson says. "We have these goals, and for example, we want to get 10 or more rebounds, but we can't get that many rebounds if we have to just keep passing the ball around and only have one half to play. It's tough."

Thomas, who transferred with her sister Samantha from Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, before the school year, was shocked by the rule. "It's really hard explaining it to college coaches who might not know about it," she says.

"You also want to be considerate of coaches who might be flying across the country to watch a game. You have to tell what games not to come to. "

So just how prevalent is this mercy rule in league play? Bartt Davis of the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that 87, or just over 15 percent, of the girls' basketball games played through Jan. 23 of this season that involved teams from Southern Nevada went to the running clock, and 24 games were decided by 47-49 points. The rule, by the way, also applies to boys' games, but it is in play far less frequently.

The NIAA says it is reviewing the rule and will potentially vote on a change at a meeting in April. Not everyone agrees on the best fix.

Weitz wants to get rid of the scoring limit to give her players a chance to play a full game and thinks starting the running clock when the point differential is 30 is better. "It comes down to this, an athlete would rather get beat by 50 with a running clock that started at the 30-point lead, than chase someone around for two quarters," she says. "And then your bench players can come in and have an opportunity to score and not be forced to just pass the ball around."

Others think a structural overhaul is the only way to go. Some want to create a "super conference," in which the top athletic programs play one another, and then the rest of the schools continue to be placed in divisions based on student-body size. Currently the state divides schools into four conferences based on size, starting with the largest schools in Division I, which Centennial and Bonanza are both in, and Division IA, which includes large schools that struggle across all sports. Divisions III and IV are for smaller schools, typically in the more remote parts of the state.

Mathis discounts the "super conference" idea because, he says, it would create a logistical nightmare. And while he doesn't think the current rule has been perfect, he does believe it's essential to ensure triple-digit wins don't happen in Nevada. "How we revise it?" he asks. "I don't know.

"Maybe we start the running clock earlier. ... My vote is to not have anyone get beat by 100 points. I'm never going to be in favor of just letting teams beat teams by any amount. I would rather end the game after a certain amount of points than that."

Mathis also says he thinks coaches can do a better job operating under the current rule.

"I think the coaches at Centennial have found a way to make a mockery of the rule, to say, 'Hey, what would you rather have: Would you like us to embarrass you by beating you by 100 points or would you rather we embarrass you by playing keep-away?' " he says.

"I think there's a way to do both, to not run up the score by 100 points and to not play keep-away. And that way is, don't wait until you get to 45 points to make adjustments or adjust your strategy."

Raleigh, the 14-year-old freshman at Bonanza, perhaps summed up the feelings of all players on the wrong side of the blowouts.

"I love basketball," she says. "It's really fun. But when we play these much better teams ... it gets really annoying. You're just standing there, watching the other team pass the ball over and over again, and you can't just take the ball because you're going to embarrass yourself. And your whole family is there to see it.

"I think when it gets to that point, we should just stop the game and just go home."

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