Courtesy photo / Pictured are players and coaches from the Stuart Country Day School basketball team after it captured the state Prep B championship with a 71-63 win at Morristown-Beard.
By Bob Nuse
It was quite a week for the Stuart Country Day School basketball team.
In the span of six days the Tartans captured their second straight state Prep B tournament title, won two games in the Mercer County Tournament, and played in the MCT semifinals at CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton.
“It’s been exciting,” said senior Bey-Shana Clark, who scored 14 points in Stuart’s 69-43 victory over Trenton in the MCT quarterfinals last Saturday. “I had high hopes in the beginning of the season and was excited for this year. It’s crazy. I remember my first year there was no one in the crowd. It was my parents and a few other people. Now the crowd is filled up and you can feel the excitement and energy.
“We just keep working. Our goal is to win Prep B and then hopefully win the MCTs. It’s been growth the whole way through. We achieve new things each time.”
The Tartans captured their second straight Prep B title when they went on the road and defeated top-seeded Morristown-Beard School, 71-63, on Feb. 13. Clark led four Tartan girls in double-figure scoring with 17 points. Laila Fair recorded 16 points, Nia Melvin scored 14 and Aleah James sank 13 in the victory.
The next day Stuart opened the MCT with a 63-21 victory over Nottingham before the win over Trenton put the Tartans in the tournament semifinals for the first time in school history. The No. 3 seed came up short in the semifinals, dropping a 54-44 decision to second-seeded Pennington.
“We’ve had a lot of big games in a row and we have just been taking it one game at a time and locking in and making sure we have prepared thoroughly for each team,” said Melvin, who led Stuart with 20 points in the win over Trenton. “We have surpassed a lot of expectations. This was a goal from the beginning of the season. Every practice and every game we have been working hard to get here.
“I think this is the first time we’ve gotten this far so it is exciting for the whole team and Stuart in general.”
Stuart finished the season with a 17-10 record against a schedule that challenged it to be playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
“The goal for this year was to win the preps and then make it to the semifinals of the Mercer County Tournament,” Stuart coach Justin Leith said. “We missed that by one last year when we lost to Allentown (in the MCT quarterfinals). So this was great.”
Stuart took on some of the top teams not just in New Jersey, but in the country and it had the school from Princeton poised to make a run in both of its tournaments.
“It’s a testament to the girls’ hard work and to us as a coaching staff looking for the best teams to play against,” Leith said. “We had some dog days down in Florida at the beginning of January. We lost to Oxbridge Academy (73-39). We lost to Miami Country Day (74-25). It was like, why are we even playing these games? I even began to question myself because at some point it can become demoralizing and maybe we’re not ready for that.
“Then we had a tough loss to St. Rose (67-27) where we just didn’t show up. I think we can compete with them. Then we went and played Christ the King very hard. For three-and-a-half quarters it was a 10-point game. They have five Division 1 players and are a top team in the country. We had played against the best and we were prepared.”
Those losses toughened up a Stuart team that took the challenge to heart and helped prepare them to go 8-2 over its last 10 games.
“One of our two big wins after the trip and the game with St. Rose was at Randolph,” Leith said. “They are a tough, well-coached team. And then we had Bound Brook, which is No. 2 in the Skyland Conference. They came in with one loss against us but they hadn’t been in the tough situations like us and that was a nice win. And even Morristown-Beard, they were 19-2 and just made the final of their (Morris) county tournament.”
In five years as the head basketball coach and athletic director at Stuart, Leith has helped transform the program.
“One of our mottos is to focus on the work,” Leith said. “My first year here we had a program where the girls would only play during their season. The approach to games was it was more of a fun thing rather than putting in some work and reaping the benefits. That’s been a philosophical change that has led us to where we are now.”