Ariyanna Stephens has been a top scorer for the Lady Panthers girls’ basketball team all season, but her impact cannot just be measured by production on the court.
Stephens is averaging close to 16 points per game in district play this season, helping Princeton to a 7-1 district record and a win against McKinney North this Friday, Jan. 27, from getting a share of the district championship.
However, what has been most important is her development and leadership off the court, helping a team with just two seniors round into form at the right time of the season. It’s something her head coach Carla Denning has highlighted about her presence all season.
“We’ve battled for sure,” Denning said. “Once she bought in and saw success personally and as a team, she saw the bigger picture and became what we needed her to be for this team. It helps that she was in their shoes once as a young player and knows what it will take to find success.”
Stephens has been a part of the Lady Panthers basketball team since her freshman season, picking up the sport in third grade after trying multiple different sports before falling in love with the game of basketball.
She said she was born to play the game, thanks to her nearly 6-foot stature and strength in the paint, she provides a big post presence for the Lady Panthers this season.
During her time at Princeton, she’s worked a lot with coach Denning, who took over the team in her freshman season. That relationship has been a big part of the Lady Panthers’ growth over the years, as they went 2-8 in Stephens’ freshman season, to second in the district last season and now have a chance to win the title.
“It’s felt like a really quick time to me,” Stephens said. “When she first got her she was kind of shy toward us, but now she’s comfortable with us and helps me play better basketball. It felt like we were both beginners when she first got her, and I think that helped me and her become so close at that time.”
Early in the season, it was a struggle for the Princeton basketball team. They started the season out of the gate below .500 with some tough tournament games on their schedule. Stephens specifically remembered a game against North Lamar, on Dec. 19, which Princeton lost by 13 as a major point in the season where she needed to step up.
“There was a lot of arguing in that game,” Stephens said. “It was just hard-headed people wanting to win and being used to winning a lot, so we had to adjust and get everyone to communicate. I try to be an older sister for the team and help them out in those moments.”
Denning even added that moment was an important moment for the team, saying that even Stephens learned from that moment and learned how to mentor the team.
“There are a lot of times she has to be the bigger person,” Denning said. “Once she learned that, it helped a lot. Not everyone is born a leader and she learned every day and was willing to be taught at times.”
As the season winds down, Stephens is happy with how everything has played out during her time at Princeton and with the basketball team. The final step to her career is defeating McKinney North. The reigning district champions have been at the top of the district the last two years, and this season, Princeton hopes to finally change that tune.
“I feel like we’ve been close to beating them the last eight or so times we’ve played,” Denning said. “It’s just time for us to focus and do it, treat it as just another game. We get so wrapped up in McKinney North, we just focus on every possession and play our game to our best abilities.”
Stephens, for her effort, is lacking confidence despite having never beaten the Lady Bulldogs in her varsity career. She’s ready for the game Friday night.
“We’re going to beat McKinney North,” Stephens said. “We just got to stick together and communicate.”
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