March 3, 2021

Stepping Up for Shorthanded Stuart Hoops, Senior Guard James Stars in Loss to Manasquan

STEPPING UP: Stuart Country Day School basketball player Aleah James brings the ball up court in a game earlier this season. Last Wednesday, senior guard James scored 14 points in a losing cause as Stuart fell 55-51 to visiting Manasquan. Two days later, James posted a triple-double in a 75-61 loss to Saddle River Day, tallying 22 points with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. The Tartans, who moved to 6-5 with that defeat, have a rematch at Saddle River on March 4 and will then host St. Dominic Academy on March 5 and Ewing on March 6. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Aleah James shouldered extra responsibility as the Stuart Country Day School basketball team hosted powerhouse Manasquan High last Wednesday.

With fellow senior guard Nia Melvin unavailable to play, James had the Stuart offense in her hands.

“I feel like I really had to pull through when it came to ball-handling because they were double-teaming me a lot,” said James.

“I just had to get through for my team and try to get to the other side of the court and make a play.”

With an athletic and aggressive Manasquan putting a full-court press on James, she battled to get the ball up the court, keeping Stuart in the game as the teams were knotted in a 24-24 tie at halftime.

After trailing the Big Blue Warriors 40-30 late in the third quarter, Stuart rallied down the stretch, narrowing the gap to one twice in the last three minutes of regulation before succumbing 55-51.

“In the fourth quarter, we were just trying to pressure the ball more and stop making silly turnovers,” said James.

“I think that is what held us back from taking the lead because we had a lot of turnovers due to exhaustion.”

James, for her part, scored two lay-ups in the last 10 seconds as she battled to the final buzzer.

“That was all about heart, I never want to go down in a game not fighting my hardest,” said James, who ended up scoring 14 points with 10 rebounds and three assists. “I was really trying my best to try to win the game.”

While the loss stung, James believes the Tartans can take some valuable lessons from the setback.

“We need to play from beginning to end,” said James. “I think if we came out with the same energy we had in the fourth quarter, it would have been a different outcome.”

With Stuart having played a gauntlet of top foes including Trenton Catholic Academy, Paul VI, Rutgers Prep, and Saddle River Day in addition to Manasquan, James has relished testing her skills against such opponents.

“I personally enjoy it, I love competition,” said James, who posted a triple-double in a 75-61 loss to Saddle River Day last Friday, tallying 22 points with 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

“I can’t stand not playing competition because competition allows us to grow as a team and play better. It allows me to grow as an individual and a player.”

Reflecting on her role with the team, James has experienced  a lot of growth since joining the program.

“I would say it has changed a lot since freshman year,” said James.

“Freshman year I was pretty much a nobody on the team. I had the skills, I just didn’t have the confidence. I decided to develop that confidence. I realized what I was really capable of and just performed on the court.”

In order to perform at her best, James has put in extra work,  customarily staying in the gym after practice and training outside of school.

“Usually I practice here and I try to get shots up when I am not in a rush to go to training down in South Jersey,” said James, who is looking to continue her hoops career at the college level. “I also go to HoopsAmerica/US Hoops on the weekend.”

Stuart head coach Justin Leith credited James with stepping up in the absence of Melvin.

“Aleah is used to that pressure and has seen it before,” said Leith.

“She has not just been solely responsible for it and that is the difference. She picked up the slack as she has in our last two games but this is just a more formidable opponent. She was tremendous. She didn’t come out of the game once and I know she had to be tired.”

Leith liked the fight he saw from his team against Manasquan even though its rally fell short.

“I think they are ranked No. 10 in the state right now; we knew they were going to be a tough team,” said Leith, who got 14 points from senior Ariel Jenkins and 12 points and 15 rebounds from senior Laila Fair in the loss.

“We are down right now without Nia; that would have made a difference tonight with the pressure they were putting on the primary ball handler. I was extremely happy with the effort; we fought. We could have just folded and packed our bags.”

Juggling the rotation gave other Tartans the chance to gain some valuable experience under fire.

“We have kids who are being forced to step up,” said Leith. “Lauren Klein is playing the same position but with a different role. Leila Washington is coming in as a freshman. Catherine Martin is always dependable; she is having to play more minutes and do different things. Laila Fair did not come out the game. We have growth, there is a learning curve. The kids will be able to say when the pressure is on, oh, I have been here before. That is how you get better.”

With Stuart having gone 6-5 as it has worked its way through a challenging slate of games, Leith is less concerned about the record than the improvement of his players.

“I challenge you to find a team that has a tougher schedule in the state, nobody does, not TCA, St. Rose, and St. John Vianney,” said Leith, whose team wraps up the 2021 season this week with a rematch at Saddle River on March 4 and then hosting St. Dominic Academy on March 5 and Ewing on March 6.

“I believe our team this year and our program is better for it, playing a schedule like that. A win is nice but the growth and the process is what we focus on.”

James, for her part, is focusing on making the most of her last week with the program.

“It is just enjoying the time with my team and continuing to get better as a player,” said James. “I want to try new things on the court and see how far I can go.”