Commentary: Stephenson Should Have Been Conference 12 POY
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Mar 1, 2014, 10:28
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
PRINCE GEORGE — Ariel Stephenson has dazzled opponents and her own coaches all season long with her vast array of offensive talent, willingness to be unselfish to set-up teammates and ability to take over a game at any moment.
Yet, when the Conference 12 Girls Player of the Year was announced, Stephenson was not the recipient of the prestigious award. Instead, the award was given to L.C. Bird's Taja Cole after her spectacular season.
However, even though Cole's season was more than solid — she filled up the stat-sheet by dropping in 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game — it did not compare to how critical Stephenson's impact was on the Lady Royals' success. Take out Cole's numbers and the Lady Skyhawks still were the holders of four players averaging over 9 points per game.
In comparison, Prince George did not have another double-digit scorer besides Stephenson. It's why the coaches in Conference 12 got it wrong in not selecting the Wake Forest commit. All one has to do is look back on the type of effect she had in every game this season.
During a game in early January against Hopewell, the Lady Royals found themselves trailing 7-3 after just 2:46 of elapsed time into the game. The Hopewell run to start the game seemed to anger Stephenson who immediately decided to put the game in her own hands and take her teammates along for the ride.
The junior would go on her own personal 14-to-2 run on an assortment of moves from mid-range jumpers, a long-range 3-pointer and penetrating drives into the paint to score by punishing drives or drawing of fouls.
"If they wanted to challenge Ariel and commit a foul, we have no problem with that," Gray said after that that game. "If you want to be aggressive and go after Ariel, well, that's the price you are going to have to pay."
And her performance against the Lady Blue Devils was not a rarity, but part of a string of dominating performances against defenses which continually harassed her with both double and triple-teams.
Never was the type of impact she can have in a game more evident than when Prince George faced a 34-29 deficit with 1:39 left in the third quarter in a game versus Clover Hill. The match-up came after the Lady Royals were unable to practice of play in nearly a two-week span due to weather cancellations and the team was rusty.
But in big-time situations, clutch players step up when it matters most and that's what Stephenson did.
The forward attacked Clover Hill relentlessly with a barrage of 3-pointers, dribble penetration, steals and transition buckets during a personal 21-to-7 run which gave Prince George a nine-point advantage they would not relinquish.
"She does it game in and game out," Gray said of her 34-point, 7-steal effort that night. "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."
It's what Stephenson did throughout the year as the wins kept piling up and the pressure continued to mount. It showed in her 27.1 points per game average to go along with 11 rebounds and 4.7 steals per game.
Her scoring average counted for exactly 50.5 percent, showing the type of importance she had to Prince George's perfect 20-0 season and two playoff wins before succumbing to Atlee in the Regionals Quarterfinal game.
"We wouldn't be nowhere near the team we are without Ariel," Gray said.
It's why the coaches should have tabbed Stephenson as player of the year over Cole of the Lady Skyhawks. Stephenson scored 12 points more per game for a team that went undefeated over the regular season.
Stephenson and the Royals also defeated L.C. Bird in the Conference 12 Title game, proving their worth to critics who argued they had played lesser competition during the season. While the statement may have been true, the Royals received every team's best shot and could not afford one off night if they wanted to keep a perfect season intact.
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
They faced the same scenario against the Skyhawks in a game Stephenson and Cole went head-to-head with the Prince George forward coming out on top on the scoreboard and in the stat-sheet scoring 25 total points while Cole and Quenswayla Story were held to a combined 22 points.
And even with all of the accolades and the winning her team produced this season, Stephenson couldn't help but point out ways she aims to improve next season.
"Our season makes me feel that hard work pays off, but I can always work harder," she said. "All my weaknesses will be strengths next year."
If that's the case, it would be hard to imagine the Stephenson could be snubbed out of being named the conference's best player for two consecutive seasons.