February 20, 2019

Stuart Basketball Producing Historic February, Winning 2nd Prep B Title, Making MCT Semis

BACK TO BACK: Members of the Stuart Country Day School basketball team show off the trophies they earned after defeating Morristown-Beard 71-63 in the state Prep B final last Wednesday. It marked the second straight Prep B title for Stuart. The Tartans, now 17-9, will be going after another championship this week as they have advanced to the final four of the Mercer County Tournament. Stuart, seeded third, was slated to face second-seeded Pennington in the MCT semis on February 19 with the victor advancing to the title game on February 21 at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton.

By Bill Alden

After enduring some tough times in January, the Stuart Country Day School basketball team is enjoying a fantastic February.

“There were a lot of losses, our record was approaching .500,” said Stuart head coach Justin Leith, whose team went 4-5 in January as it faced a gauntlet of formidable foes.

“We knew going into it that it was going to be difficult. We were able get better even during our weakest moments and darkest times.”

Last week in the state Prep B tournament, second-seeded Stuart experienced some very good times, topping third-seeded Academy of St. Elizabeth 82-72 in the semis on February 11 and then going on the road to play top-seeded Morristown-Beard in the final and pulling out a 71-63 win for the program’s second straight Prep B crown.

In Leith’s view, defensive intensity helped make the difference for the Tartans.

“Both teams had great shooters, St Elizabeth was great and Morristown-Beard was even better,” said Leith.

“If you pull out a shot chart or look at their field goals player to player, they shoot a majority of 3s. We preach elbow above shoulder on every close out; we believe that wears on a three-point shooting team over the course of the game. A good team is going to make shots but having to deal with that every time, we believe that we can overcome that great shooting.”

In overcoming Mo-Beard, the Tartans forced some turnovers in a pivotal stretch of the second quarter to turn the tide in their favor as they outscored Mo-Bears 23-16 in the period to take a 39-33 lead at halftime.

“They had done their research, they had watched film and on one of our zone presses usually people put someone in the middle but they put someone higher up,” said Leith.

“Catherine Martin (sophomore forward) sensed it before I did so we were able to get a few steals and really extend the lead in the second quarter.”

Senior star forward Bey-Shana Clark came up big in the title game, scoring 17 points and grabbing six rebounds.

“Bey has picked the perfect time to really come alive and has played her best basketball at Stuart,” asserted Leith.

“We are constantly looking for ways to get her the ball. When the focus becomes on Bey, she knows how to kick the ball out. She is selfless; that is what is great about her.”

Stuart’s lethal inside-out game was in evidence against the Crimson as sophomore forward Laila Fair tallied 16 points while sophomore guards Nia Melvin and Aleah James contributed 14 and 13 points, respectively.

“We were able to adjust to what they were doing; it makes it difficult for teams to just focus on one thing,” said Leith. “We have so many weapons.”

While earning the title repeat was a big thing for the Tartans, Leith believes it reflects a focus on winning across the board for the school’s teams.

“It is a testament to where Stuart is, not just as a basketball team but athletically,” said Leith.

“You look at our track team, field hockey in the fall, and lacrosse is going to be a big-time eye opener to everyone. It is really a revival of Stuart athletics. Basketball is a part of that and the back-to-back piece is just awesome but there is certainly synergy among the teams. We are a small school and the coaches share a lot of athletes. The culture has changed; the expectations of work and winning has changed in a good way for everybody to be all in.”

Stuart will be all in as it pursues a title in the Mercer County Tournament this week, where it is seeded third and topped sixth-seeded Trenton 69-43 last Saturday in a quarterfinal contest.

“We did a good job of controlling the pace and making them work on defense instead of making it only and up and down game when they want it to be,” said Leith, reflecting on the win over the Tornadoes which saw Melvin score 20 points and James and Clark both add 14 as the team improved to 17-9 overall and 5-1 in February. “It was up and down in our favor. They were a dangerous team but we were able to take care of business.”

The Tartans will now look to take care of business in the semis against second-seeded Pennington, a team that beat them 54-53 on November 30 and 57-37 on January 9.

“I think it will be a really tight game and a fun one for the girls at the arena in Trenton,” said Leith, whose squad was slated to face the Red Raiders in the MCT semis on February 19 with the victor advancing to the title game on February 21 at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton.

“Our two goals this year were to win the Prep Bs and make a trip to the arena. We have accomplished both of those and we hope to continue.”