February 26, 2020

With Senior Hansford Sparking Tenacious Defense, Stuart Hoops Wins 3rd Prep B, Makes MCT Semis

THREE’S COMPANY: Senior guard Jasmine Hansford (front row, far right), celebrates with her teammates on the Stuart Country Day basketball team after the Tartans topped Academy of St. Elizabeth 65-33 in the state Prep B final last Wednesday to win their third straight state crown. On Friday, Hansford and the Tartans took a step toward another title as second-seeded Stuart topped seventh-seeded Hopewell Valley 51-23 in the Mercer County Tournament quarterfinals. Stuart, now 20-6, faces third-seeded Notre Dame on February 26 in the MCT semis at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton with the victor advancing to the title game on February 28. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Although Jasmine Hansford scored only two points as the Stuart Country Day basketball team topped Academy of St. Elizabeth 65-33 in the state Prep B title game last Wednesday, she helped set the tone for the Tartans.

“Defense is my main thing,” said Stuart senior guard Hansford. “I always guard the best players on the other team and make sure that they get the least amount of points possible. That is my main goal.”

Against second-seeded St. Elizabeth, top-seeded Stuart produced a stifling defensive effort on the way to building a 31-16 halftime lead and never looked back as it earned its third straight Prep B title.

“There was a lot of energy. We wanted to win; we wanted to get the third one,” said Hansford, who had four steals, two assists and a rebound in the title game.

“We knew if we gave it our all, we would start to pull away from them. We knew it would be a close game but we wanted to keep pounding it to not let them come back.”

Stuart’s one-two punch of 6’4 Ariel Jenkins and 6’3 Laila Fair helps it pound teams in the paint

“It is great, we can pass it in to one of them and then she will hit the other one,” said Hansford of the two junior forwards.

“If you shoot it, they will get the rebound for you. On help defense, if your girl gets by you, they are there to help.”

For Hansford, it is great to get another state title as look to make the most of her final weeks with the program.

“You only get this opportunity once in a lifetime so I am happy I got to do it three times,” said Hansford.

“I am glad as a senior that I got to win it again. It is bittersweet, I am sad but I am also happy that we are winning. I am going out with a bang.” 

The squad’s togetherness has helped pave the way for its great success. “We have a lot of team chemistry; we are close off the court so when we get on the court, it is easier to play together,” said Hansford.

“We are never playing selfish, we are always looking for the next person and the next open pass.”

As the team’s lone senior, Hansford looks to influence that upbeat mindset.   

“I try to be a role model,” said Hansford. “I try to make sure that I am always doing the right thing so they can follow after me.”

Stuart head coach Justin Leith credited Hansford with setting a good example on the defensive end.

“When we beat Saddle River Day School (58-49 on February 4), it was the best game that she played in her career and I don’t know if she scored,” said Leith.

“I didn’t take her off the floor today because she is a defensive machine. We said in the second half get on No 10. She is reliable, she knows what to do, and she is super athletic.”

In overcoming St. Elizabeth, the Tartans utilized their athleticism. “Our goal was to wear them down, looking at film they are not used to playing at that pace,” said Leith.

“They are a solid team but they are not used to playing at our pace so we were just going to pressure, pressure.”

Achieving the goal of a third straight Prep B title was special for the Tartans.

“We were fired up; before the game, we said we have got to finish it,” said Leith, who got 16 points from Aleah James in the win with Nia Melvin adding 14 and Jenkins chipping in 13 points and 10 rebounds.

“We went out to Phoenix in December (for the Nike Tournament of Champions), we played in all of those showcases in January. We had some tough games like Saddle River Day. We did all of that for this; that was the message before the game and they took care of business.”

Reflecting on the program’s progress since he took the helm in 2014, Leith credited some of the players on his first few teams with laying the groundwork for Stuart’s current lofty status.

“It says a lot, even coming into today, I think of girls like Harlyn Bell, Kate Walsh, and Madeleine Michaels,” said Leith, referring to previous Stuart standouts.

“Those girls went through all of the same stuff that these girls go through in practice. The work ethic that we instilled then has held true. They were part of the building blocks and the foundation of that. It is nice; it says a lot about how far we have come. We have added players, we have also developed a lot too. We have continued to get better and better every year. We hope to continue to do that.”

Last Friday, the Tartans continued winning in postseason play as second-seeded Stuart topped seventh-seeded Hopewell Valley 51-23 in the Mercer County Tournament quarterfinals. Stuart, now 20-6 and riding a 16-game winning streak, will face third-seeded Notre Dame on February 26 at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton with the victor advancing to the title game on February 28.

“Our goal is to win Mercer Counties, it is not a secret, we say it on Twitter,” said Leith, whose team’s win over the Bulldogs was the 100th victory of his tenure at Stuart.

“That is our goal. Today is a good step forward. We have to take care of business on Friday and then again on Wednesday. We would love to play TCA (Trenton Catholic Academy) in that final.”

Hansford, for her part, is confident that the Tartans will take care of business at the MCT.

“When I first got here, we only had two good players and we started to bring in more and more people,” said Hansford.

“Nia [Melvin] came and we kept building our program up and up. We started playing better competition and with the better competition, we were ready for games like this.”