In starting the season with a 4-2 record, the Stuart Country Day School basketball team cruised in each of its wins, posting an average margin of victory of 26.2 points in those four triumphs.
When Stuart played at Princeton Day School last Friday, the Tartans found themselves in a tight contest despite having beaten PDS 48-21 in December.
Stuart led 19-15 at halftime and took a 25-21 advantage into the fourth quarter.
Second-year Tartan head coach Dana Leary, for her part, wasn’t surprised that the rematch had a different feel than the initial meeting between the local foes.
“I expected a different game from the first time and the girls knew that as well,” said Leary.
“We were going to their place and they were going to be a much improved team.”
One factor that made the second encounter closer was Stuart’s failure to calmly handle PDS’s defensive pressure.
“We were panicking the entire game; the press was hurting us,” said Leary. “As much as we have been working on it, it was like they were seeing it for the first time. I kept stressing that you have to work hard defensively and on the offensive end you have to get it out. When you catch it, you have to be poised.”
The Tartans, though, showed poise down the stretch, outscoring the Panthers 4-0 in the last minute to pull out a 33-28 win.
“They pulled it together when it counted,” said Leary. “They calmed down by the end; it took the whole game. I am very proud of them for working hard and playing right to the end. That is all you can ask for.”
Some fine work inside by sophomore Kate Walsh and Nneka Onukwugha helped Stuart prevail as Walsh scored a game-high nine points while Onukwugha added eight.
“Kate has been having a great year so far; tonight she came through for us at the end with two big putbacks,” said Leary.
“Nneka has been showing up every single game, going and doing exactly what is expected of her. Tonight I saw she was hungry for it. She was going after the ball. She was out there to work; she didn’t want to get outworked tonight. You could definitely see that in her game.”
In Leary’s view, winning a game like last Friday’s contest should help the Tartans down the road.
“They haven’t been in a close one yet so now they have that experience and they can be confident in themselves at the end of the game,” said Leary, whose team hosts Bound Brook on January 17 before playing at Solebury School (Pa.) on January 21.
“They know they are capable of having the lead, holding onto it, and then coming out with the win.”