Stephenson, Lady Royals Sink Hopewell
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Jan 16, 2014, 21:28
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
HOPEWELL — Prince George stepped onto Bill Littlepage Court sporting an unblemished 14-0 record on the season and with it came the confidence of a team which knows what they are capable of.
It's why it was no surprise that even after Hopewell opened the game with an attacking philosophy to take a 7-3 lead just 2:46 into the game, Prince George had an answer. In the game's opening minutes, the Lady Blue Devils successfully rendered Ariel Stephenson useless with a barrage of double-teams, but it would not last.
Sensing her team needed a spark, Stephenson took matters into her own hands at the top of the key. The junior forward eyed the defense before darting down the middle with little hesitation, drawing the foul and halting Hopewell's momentum.
The Wake Forest commit would go on her own personal 14-to-2 run to turn the tide and set the stage for a Lady Royals' 61-39 victory, keeping their undefeated season intact.
"They came out real aggressive and they're big and tall," Lady Royals head coach Billy Gray said after the game. "We had to kind of feel it out to get what we wanted going. Never was really nervous. They're a good team, but we finally had our way with it and started hitting baskets."
While Gray was being modest, the Lady Royals (15-0) didn't just score, but did so in dominating fashion. They used their full-court, trapping-defense to help jump-start an offense which was stale to start the game.
Yet, while the defense continued to force turnovers at a high-rate — 23 turnovers with 16 of those coming in the first half alone — the offensive flow picked up. Stephenson may have jump-started it by scoring 22 of her game-high 28 points in the first half, but it was a true team-effort.
Without Prince George point guard Jo-Jo Taylor running the offense, the story may have been different. Taylor took the reins of the high-powered scoring attack by running the set-plays called from the bench with precision.
Taylor routinely threaded passes into tight spaces within the paint while also successfully drawing Hopewell out of their 2-3 zone before kicking it out to an open teammate. Her effort did not go unnoticed by Gray.
"That's what Jo does," Gray explained. "She doesn't have the responsibility of having to score one basket. She runs the entire team and she does it real, real well. It makes all the rest of them good. She draws defenses and kicks it to the open person, grabs rebound and plays some good doggone defense, too."
However, the turning point of the game came at the 4:04 mark of the first quarter. At that point, the Blue Devils (8-8) were having success because of the play of freshman forward Daijah Jefferson.
Jefferson scored the Blue Devils' first seven points and impacted the game on the defensive end with two emphatic rejections at the rim. Stephenson turned Jefferson's aggressiveness into a Lady Royals' advantage by forcing her into foul trouble with penetrating drives to create contact.
The three fouls committed by Jefferson forced her to the bench as Prince George outscored Hopewell 30-to-6 during her time on the bench.
"If they wanted to challenge Ariel and commit a foul, we have no problem with that," Gray said. "And she is so big and tall so to get her out of the game a bit did help. If she doesn't foul, she doesn't. But if you want to be aggressive and go after Ariel, well, that's the price you are going to have to pay."
And that's what Stephenson brings to the team.
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
It's not just her ability to score in a variety of ways — beyond the arc, penetration, in transition and jump-shots — but her knack of knowing the situation and what it calls for. But while Gray enjoys every second of watching Stephenson pull-up for long 3-pointers and use devastating cross-overs to get into the lane, he knows it's not a one-person team.
It's why it had to be encouraging for Gray to see so much production come from the rest of the starters and off the bench throughout the game. Taylor dropped in 5 points from the point guard spot while Tiana Bowen tallied 9 in her time on the hardwood.
Even Markia Smith showed an ability to finish in traffic en route to an 8-point night, all of which showed the development of the players around Stephenson and what it means to future success.
"The bench comes in and they play big roles in this game," Gray said. "They've been doing that for awhile and the more they get to play, the better off we are going to be. It's not an Ariel team. This team is comprised of 12 players."
While Stephenson stole the show with her outside marksmanship by nailing six 3-pointers, it is the progress of those around her which makes this Prince George squad a legitimate title threat moving forward.