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Mon. February 20, 2012 | John C. Cotey | Email

Column: Nohra's basketball teams stay one step ahead

LAND O’LAKES — The pressure is relentless. The ball always moving. The shots never ending.

Move, move, move.

It wasn’t always like this for Karim Nohra.

When he first started coaching in 1990, he tried to run plays, slowly and methodically, and found the more he did that, the less likely his players were to shoot, and score.

After getting beat up his first few seasons, Nohra shifted gears, from first to second.

Then third.

Now fourth.

Move, move, move.

This is how Karim Nohra likes it.

Play defense, get a steal, run to the other end and shoot it.

This is how he makes his team look faster, quicker, better than other teams, even sometimes when it is not.

This is how he has won more than 400 games and made it to eight region finals.

This is how he has made it to the state girls basketball final four for the first time, where today at 2:30 p.m. his Academy at the Lakes Wildcats take on Florida A&M at the Lakeland Center.

“Finally,” he said, “I get to dance.”

•••

At practice Monday, Nohra, 55, arrived from his other job, teaching engineering at the University of South Florida.

He walked into the gym at Academy at the Lakes, talking on the phone, disappearing into the boys locker room to change, then surveying the scene as his Wildcats practiced their fastbreak.

At first, the fiery coach was calm.

Then, a layup clanked off the rim, and he wasn’t, ordering his team to the floor to do push-ups.

“You can’t miss layups,” he screamed, because in Saturday’s region final they missed a bunch against an inferior opponent and it didn’t matter. Today it will.

“Miss that,” he said, “and it’s two points the other way.”

Think, he told the Wildcats, pointing to his head.

Make the easy shots. Choose the safe passes. Be patient when FAMU comes calling with its vaunted full-court press, because if you aren’t, you will be buried.

You dictate how the game is played, he says, not them.

“If you watch his teams play and watch how they execute, it’s a very meticulous and thought-out process,” said Gulf coach Mike Quarto. “He does as good a job as anyone of taking you out of what you want to do on a nightly basis.”
Nohra said his teams’ successes have come from their superior mental strength.

He doesn’t think he has the most talented athletes, or the best shooters or the slickest passers.

But he insists his team will be smarter than the opponent.

“He demands that we play smart, perfect basketball,” said senior guard Samantha Fernandez. “I don’t think he really expects us to be perfect, but he definitely thinks we should be trying for it.”

Fernandez is the kind of athlete Nohra builds teams around.

Fernandez already had the speed, so Nohra focused on the mental aspect of her game when she arrived at AATL this season from Oldsmar Christian.

He put her in situations and made her respond quickly. He demanded she think before she acted. He taught her things about basketball she didn’t know.

“The mental game he teaches here is better than any other coach I’ve had,” Fernandez said. “He taught me to think and see the whole floor and understand the game better. I’m a completely better player than I was last year at this time.”

There isn’t a player on the AATL roster who can’t say the same thing.

•••

Nohra may not be a familiar face in Lakeland, but he has been one of Tampa Bay’s most successful girls basketball coaches the past two decades.

Only six other coaches, including Boca Ciega’s Harry Elifson, Clearwater’s Tom Shaneyfelt and Tampa Catholic’s Nancy Kroll, have been to four straight region finals.

Unlike the others, Nohra had never gotten through to state.

“No one deserves it more than Coach,” said junior guard Andrea Mauger.

Nohra has turned programs around, like at Tampa Catholic. He built powerhouses, like at Cambridge. He won where he wasn’t supposed to, at Wesley Chapel after taking over the year after that program graduated the then-leading scorer in Pasco County history.

But it is here, at Academy at the Lakes, that he has done some of his finest work. He inherited an 0-15 team in 2010, and building from scratch proceeded to guide it deep into the playoffs.

This year’s team includes Mauger, who played for him at Wesley Chapel; and Fernandez, who went to a pair of region finals with Sickles; and Vanessa Vincent, who played in a final four at Jefferson.

They come to win, to play defense, get a steal, run to the other end and shoot it.

This is how Karim Nohra likes it.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com.

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