Stephenson Highlights Prince George Win
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Feb 3, 2014, 22:49
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
PRINCE GEORGE — As Clover Hill's Danielle McNeil's long-range 3-pointer sunk through the 18-inch rim, the Lady Royals' players found themselves in a position they have yet to be in all season. The Cavaliers had Prince George on the ropes, leading 34-29 with 1:39 to go in the third quarter as adversity slowly crept its way onto the hardwood.
However, it's in these moments where big-time players step up, put the team on their back and carry them to victory. Luckily for the Lady Royals, junior Ariel Stephenson did just that and more.
The 5-foot-11 forward scored Prince George's next 21 points, going on a personal 21-to-7 run to help take a 50-41 lead. The nine-point advantage with just over four minutes remaining was all the Lady Royals would need to take complete control of the game and remain undefeated in a 56-49 victory.
"Considering we've been on the floor one time in the last 14 days, I knew the style we play requires us to be in the gym two or three times a week to keep us in shape ... and it showed tonight," Prince George head coach Billy Gray said after the game. "I was worried about it ... I just knew it was going to be rough. They're a good team, a big-team ... I liked the fact that our kids hung in there and didn't quit."
And while Gray's team showed tremendous grit to stick to the game-plan as shots went awry and rotations were a step slow, it was Stephenson's play that became the story of the game.
The Wake Forest commit had scored just 12 points with 1:39 remaining in the third quarter of play as she struggled to shake off the rust. Stephenson's long-range 3-pointers — normally automatic for her when left open — clanked off iron time and time again. With each missed shot, the frustration grew more apparent across her face.
She knew her team needed her to produce and could sense if she couldn't change the tide around, momentum would swing entirely to Clover Hill (2-7) and leave the Lady Royals (15-0) no chance to keep their record unblemished. And it was as that 3-pointer fell, Stephenson had a different look in her eyes.
It was a look which exuded confidence and grew even more so after she drained a left-wing 3-pointer and followed it up with a punishing drive to the basket to end the third quarter. Yet, she was not done.
Stephenson would then score 16 points in the fourth quarter alone — four more than the entire Cavaliers' team — on an assortment of moves. She connected on two more 3-pointers, mid-range pull-ups and transition baskets after picking up steals.
She became a one-person wrecking crew, leaving fans in attendance and her coach in awe of the talent she possesses.
"She does it game in and game out," Gray said of her 34-point, 7-steal effort. "It's great that when you need that, you have Ariel out there to do it. She took a lot on her shoulders and really carried us."
And she had to carry Prince George because for the first 16 minutes of action, the defense was sliced apart by the Cavaliers.
Utilizing back-cuts to the basket, screen-and-drives and pick-and-pops, Austin Burton scored at will en route to an 18-point night. She was helped out with the outside shooting of Keri Lanier who dropped in 7 points of her own while McNeil tallied 12 points in the eventual loss.
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
Yet, Clover Hill's offense would remain quiet for much of the second half of play as the Lady Royals tightened defensively after a locker room talk by Gray as they focused on taking away their man and not losing track on screens.
"We talked about knowing where your man is and play defense," Gray said. "We play a lot of help defense, but you don't get to give up your player that you're guarding ... I thought we did better defensively of knowing where our man was, helping when we could and rotating back when we couldn't."
The defensive shut-down began with the play of point guard Jo-Jo Taylor who tallied just 4 points on the night, but her impact defensively was felt throughout the game. It was Taylor who after a Lady Royals' turnover, forced the Cavaliers into one of their own with a heady trap near the sideline, showing off her leadership.
Then, Markia Smith also displayed physicality in the paint as she drove the lane and finished while drawing contact for an and-1 attempt late in the fourth quarter, making the crowd erupt for the eventual dagger as she finished with 6 points. Even Tyah Washington chipped in 6 points of her own on an off shooting night from 3-point range.
It was exactly the type of effort Prince George needed to overcome adversity and capture a come-from-behind win to help raise the team's confidence.
"It makes us feel real good because they were a big and strong group of kids and to overcome them, it means a lot to us," Gray said.
It also sends a message to opponents that no matter how long you keep Stephenson and Prince George down, all it takes is one basket for them to flip the script and come out on top, making them a heavy favorite moving forward.