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Former WNBA player Lisa Willis passes first big test as coach at T.C. Williams

T.C. Williams Coach Lisa Willis, a former WNBA player, instructs the Titans during a matchup with Oakton on Tuesday night.
T.C. Williams Coach Lisa Willis, a former WNBA player, instructs the Titans during a matchup with Oakton on Tuesday night. (By Kyle Melnick/For The Washington Post)
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A spectator wouldn’t have known Lisa Willis was coaching her first crucial girls’ basketball game with T.C. Williams on Tuesday night against Oakton. Willis, wearing T.C. Williams sweats, scrolled through her iPhone while her team warmed up pregame, and for most of the first quarter she stood silently on the sideline with her arms crossed.

“[Oakton’s] a big Virginia team?” Willis said after the No. 12 Titans’ 50-35 victory. “I’m not from Virginia, so I didn’t even know.”

Willis’s calm demeanor hardly translates to her team’s style of play, though. When she took over the program in September, Willis implemented a triangle offense, which few high school teams use. The Titans (2-0) utilized a full-court press all game against the Cougars (2-1).

Behind her new sets, Willis, without even being aware of it, passed her first big test as the Titans’ coach against Oakton’s Fred Priester, one of the area’s most accomplished coaches.

“One thing I tell my girls is we don’t care who we’re playing,” Willis said. “I guess it might be good I didn’t know the hype around them.”

Former coach Kesha Walton transformed T.C. Williams into a playoff contender over her 12 years in command, but she left the Alexandria school in October to take over at Bishop Ireton.

Willis played in the WNBA for four seasons and later was the head coach at Montreat College in North Carolina. Willis wanted to focus on mentoring children, so she left Montreat to run a basketball camp in Maryland called “Mindful Development Hoops.”

While Willis was hesitant to return to coaching, T.C. Williams sought the Long Beach, Calif., native’s leadership. In addition to integrating a complicated offense, Willis brought a new culture. The team holds weekly classroom meetings, where players discuss improving their mentality. Willis said her ambition separated her as a player, so next week the team is talking about developing a desire to be successful.

“Even some of my coaching staff was like, ‘This might be too complicated,’ ” Willis said. “But I’m huge on setting the bar high.”

One example of Willis’s developing trust with her players came in the third quarter Tuesday. Guard Geonna Stockton was upset after missing a layup and a three-pointer. Willis called her over to the sideline and encouraged the senior to keep shooting. Stockton then drained a buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the quarter that tilted momentum toward the Titans.

As T.C. Williams seeks its fourth consecutive Gunston District title and takes aim at a Virginia Class 6 championship, Willis hopes those bonds with her players become closer.

“It’s up to me to show up in players’ lives in different ways,” Willis said, “so they’re like, ‘Wow, Coach has my back.’ ”