Thrust Into Limelight, Stephens Produces Career Game To Get Princeton Men's Hoops Back On Winning Track
By Bill Alden
Mike Stephens has grown accustomed to his understudy role with the Princeton University men's basketball team. But after Princeton's stunning 57-52 loss to Brown last Friday in its Ivy League opener, the senior back-up center sensed that he was going to be thrust into a leading role for the Tigers in their clash with Yale on Saturday.
"Judson's back was a little tight after the game last night," said Stephens, referring to Princeton's starting center and leading scorer Judson Wallace.
"He wasn't sure if he was going to be able to go. He told me that I was going to have to step up. He's confident in my ability."
Wallace's faith in Stephens was justified as the 6'10, 250-pounder came on in relief of the ailing starter to play the game of his life, pouring in a career-high 23 points to spark Princeton to a critical 58-43 win before a Jadwin Gym crowd of 4,428.
Stephens was at his best when the Tigers needed him the most. With Princeton clinging to a 31-30 lead early in the second half, Stephens scored 11 straight points for the Tigers as they built a 42-36 lead and never looked back.
Coming into the game having scored a total of 24 points in his last 10 games, Stephens' sizzling effort saw him go 7-for-11 from the field, including 3-for-4 from three point range, and 6-for-6 from the foul line. He also contributed five rebounds, three blocked shots, and two assists in his 25 minutes of action.
In reflecting on his evening in the spotlight, Stephens said he just let the game come to him. "We ran our offense the way it's supposed to go," said Stephens, a Napa, Calif. native who was averaging 3.4 points a game coming into Saturday.
"Whoever gets a shot in the scheme of our offense, he is the one who takes the shot. I got the ball down in the block which is where the coaches wanted me to get the ball. I hit some hooks and I put some threes in."
Even as he went on the roll of his career, Stephens didn't deviate from the game plan. "I think it goes through your mind but you also have to stay focused," said Stephens referring to the stretch of the game where scored 11 points in a row for Princeton.
"What good is a bucket if you can't go down on the defensive end and make a stop or get a big rebound. Whoever makes the basket, we all go back and play defense."
While the self-effacing Stephens may have downplayed his individual contribution, Yale coach James Jones made no bones about the center's impact on the contest.
"Stephens got off tonight, we didn't do a good job of stopping him," said a subdued Jones. "He had a career-high; he won the game for them."
From his vantage point, Princeton head coach Joe Scott thought Stephens made it look easy. "Mike doesn't do anything," said a grinning Scott, whose club improved to 10-6 overall and 1-1 in Ivy play.
"He passes the ball, he runs the offense. The game is easy for Mike. He's going to make a three-point shot, he's going to throw passes, he's going to score in the low post when it's his right time. Obviously, Mike's defense was terrific too, he had three blocks."
With the Tigers reeling from the loss to Brown, Princeton's first defeat in an Ivy opener since 1996, the emphasis was on defense.
"All we care about the rest of the year is the defensive end," said Scott, whose team held Yale to 17 points in the second half on 4-of-16 shooting.
"That's what I talked to them after the game last night. I think in the second half, when you just guard, and you guard, and you guard, all of a sudden the offense gets easier. All of a sudden we broke through and things became available for us."
The Tigers showed their coach some courage in producing that kind of effort. "We were shaken," said Scott, referring to the team's performance in the first half which saw them head into the dressing room trailing by 26-24 after a Yale three-pointer at the halftime buzzer.
"We had to change something tonight. It was hard for the team to do what it did tonight. I give the guys a lot of credit for that. We could've come out and caved in. When they hit that three-pointer at the end of the half, we could have said oh, no, not again.' We came out and we didn't let that happen."
Now Scott is faced with the hard problem of trying to figure out how to apportion the minutes between Wallace and Stephens as Princeton plays at Dartmouth on February 4 and at Harvard on February 5 before heading down to Philadelphia on February 8 for its annual war with Penn at the Palestra.
"As we go forward, I'd like to figure out how to get the most out of Judson and the most out of Mike," said Scott. "If we do that, we're only going to be a better basketball team."
Stephens, for his part, is content to continue on as Princeton's super sub. "Whatever role I need to fill on this team, I'm willing to do it," said the economics major, who is doing his senior thesis on the National Basketball Association's salary cap.
"It's more relaxing for me to see a couple minutes of the game and see how the tempo is going and what plays they are trying to get through. When you go into a game, you have a mindset about what needs to be done."
Last Saturday, Stephens got it done like never before in his four years at Princeton.