Coronado freshman Fatinah Muhammed a steal for Cougar girls' basketball

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Photo - Coronado guard Fatinah Muhammed, center, goes for the basket they took on Fountain-Fort Carson at home on Friday January 12, 2018 in Colorado Springs. Coronado fell short by a score of 69-38. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

Coronado guard Fatinah Muhammed, center, goes for the basket they took on Fountain-Fort Carson at home on Friday January 12, 2018 in Colorado Springs. Coronado fell short by a score of 69-38. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

Coronado’s first-year girls' basketball coach, Bryan Earls, and his budding freshman Fatinah Muhammed are boldly attempting to change to fortunes of the dormant Cougar program, and early results have shown promise.

Earls scrapped a system that led to a total of eight wins over the previous three seasons. He has the Cougars playing at a dizzying pace and defending the length of the court.

It turns out Muhammed, who goes by Tinah and has played for Earls since fifth grade, is a near-perfect fit for the style with her blend of athleticism, length and growing skill.

“Defense is the foundation of what she does, and it’s the foundation of what we’re trying to do here, man-to-man pressure,” Earls said.

“She can do that extremely well.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Muhammed was in the top 25 in the state with 4.9 steals per game, second among freshmen. She also blocks 1.5 shots per contest.

“Really, I feel like my teammates motivate me to do that,” said Muhammed of her defensive effort. “I see them working hard, and I push myself to do it.”

At 5-foot-10, she’s handled the tip-off for the Cougars and defended the post when necessary while orchestrating the offense as a guard without complaint.

“I think it’s fun because I get to play both positions,” she said.

Muhammed has shown flashes on the offensive side, posting 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting in a close loss to Littleton and 21 points in a 9-of-15 outing in a one-point win over Wheat Ridge earlier in the season, but consistency hasn’t arrived yet.

She hasn’t reached double figures in the past five games – all losses - and was held scoreless for the first time Tuesday against Air Academy.

But for a team that expects four of its five leading scorers to return next year, the future remains the focus. Earls and Muhammed agreed an improved stroke would help take her game and the Cougar offense to another level.

“I think she needs more confidence in the jump shot, and we need to refine it, but to this point, her game has really been about attacking the rim and getting those kind of shots,” Coronado’s coach said.

Earls said he’s sure Muhammed is willing to put in the necessary work, which makes it hard to imagine where she, and the Cougars, could go in the next four years. The duo has tested her talents across the country, and the early results have been promising.

“She’s had some good opportunities to play against some good players, and every time she plays somebody better, her game goes up,” Earls said.

“Not everybody’s game can do that. Her’s has done that. That’s why I say I don’t know where the ceiling is.”

Muhammed said she aspires to get the Cougars to the playoffs – a tall task considering Coronado’s best season since 2006 was an 8-16 campaign in 2012-13 - and get a chance to play in college.

The potential is there.

In Friday’s loss to Fountain-Fort Carson, Muhammed had a stretch where she came up with a steal and finished in transition before snatching the ball again the next time the Trojans brought the ball down. In the second half, she not only blocked a layup but corralled the ball without allowing FFC a chance at a rebound.

“She probably has three to four of those plays a game,” Earls said. “Anywhere from two to five of those plays a game where (assistant) coach (Rick) Rienks will turn to me and say ‘That’s just nasty.’”

Muhammed said a love of basketball runs deep in her family. While she added that her freshman season is more challenging than she would’ve predicted, Earls thinks she’s ahead of where he imagined she would be defensively.

“I would say her performance to this point is about what I expected it to be. I’m happy with her development,” Earls said.

“I’ve been a little bit surprised that she’s gotten as many steals and blocks as she has.”

And the freshman is happy to be playing in a system that highlights her abilities.

“It’s fun because we have teammates that run with you,” Muhammed said. “It’s easier.”