Jan 26, 2014
Plenty of college basketball teams wanted Azura Stevens.
At six-foot-five, Stevens has dominated competition throughout her senior season at Cary High School, currently averaging a double-double in points and rebounds and frequently recording rebounding totals well over 20.
The sixth-ranked female forward in the nation, Stevens will suit up for the Duke Blue Devils and coach Joanne P. McCallie next year. Like many highly-recruited high school athletes, Stevens was relieved when the recruiting process came to an end.
"In the beginning it was like a joyride and it was kind of surreal, all the different schools I was talking to," Stevens said. "And then I sort of started getting tired of it. It started to get stressful when I was about to decide."
It is easy to see why, in a scout's eyes, Stevens is such a desirable player. The leader of Patrick Daly's 14-3 Cary Imp team, Stevens is averaging 30.9 points and 18.2 rebounds per game in one of the most remarkable statistical seasons in recent memory. She posted a season-high 45 points in her first game of the season against the Garner Trojans.
Stevens thrived under the spotlight of the HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational, where she broke the girls' bracket single-game record for rebounding when she pulled down 26 boards in Cary's second game of the weekend. A day later, she broke her own record when she had 28 rebounds.
She shattered the all-time mark for rebounds in the tournament with 79. The previous record was 52. She also set the single-game block record with seven and the all-time tournament field goal record with 33.
"She's got a unique package," said Daly, who is in his second year coaching basketball at Cary. "She can play inside and out. She's quick enough to guard girls on the perimeter that might be smaller than her, and she can play the front of a press. There are so many things she can do."
Perhaps making Stevens' recent success all the more impressive, the Cary star was injured for the large majority of her junior season with a fractured fibula. While many 4-A Southwest Wake Athletic Conference teams did not have to scheme for the forward's talents last season, they are throwing everything they have at her this year. Stevens faces all types of defenses each night and is very rarely--if ever--single-teamed.
"In some games, I think I'm more pumped up and ready to go, so some games I come out and something just takes over me," she said. "In all my games, I try to play an even-tiered game and stay composed and not get too frustrated, no matter what the defense is doing."
And although Stevens has goals and aspirations with this year's conference-leading Cary team, she cannot help but think ahead to her future at Duke, playing for a prestigious athletic program.
Duke's location to Cary was one of the first essential factors in Steven's decision--she wanted to stay close to her family and friends in North Carolina. However, the true appeal of the Blue Devil program came when, according to Stevens, Coach McCallie told her that playing for the team would not be easy. Everybody gives Duke their best game.
Stevens enjoys the idea of playing with a target on her back. After all, she has been doing it all year.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge," Stevens said. "My main goal this summer is to go there and work hard, and not be nervous or scared when I get there but just go out there and play.
"With whatever minutes I do get, I want to be an asset to this team and be helpful," she said. "I know I'm not going to go out there and be the leading scorer, but going out and helping us win a National Championship is what I'm going there to do."
While Stevens has had an incredibly successful few months, there is still much to be accomplished with her current Imp team.
With six games to play in Cary's regular season, the Imps are 6-2 in the conference. The record has them in a three-way tie atop the SWAC, knotted with Athens Drive and Apex for the top spot. Both opponents are still on Cary's schedule during their last stretch of the year.
Cary's first loss of the year came in December. After starting 8-0 on the season, the Imps collided with West Craven in the first game of the Holiday Invitational. The team lost by six points that day, but Daly credits the game as a key point in the Imps' season.
"That's part of why you want to play in a tournament like that, just because of the competition and the level of teams," Daly said. "That's only going to make you better. It identifies your strengths and also some of your weaknesses."
Cary got by the rest of the competition during the weekend of the HSOT Invite, but not without paying a price. Stevens suffered a minor injury in the team's final game of the tournament against Dudley, and she was forced to miss a game.
Playing without Stevens, Cary again hit a roadblock in the coming days when the team fell to Holly Springs, 53-36. Just one Cary player scored in double-figures, and the team gave up a monster stat-line to Holly Springs sophomore Brianna Tate, who finished with 16 points, seven assists and nine steals.
Rejoining the team for it's next game, Stevens recorded 34 points and 13 rebounds, but the team was unable to avoid losing its second conference game in a row as the rival Apex Cougars beat the team, 68-62.
"Apex shot the ball really well that game," Daly said. "I think we may have out-rebounded them but they hit a lot of big shots. They had pulled away in the end of the third and we made a pretty good comeback. We got it within a basket but couldn't get over the top."
Coming off the two-game losing streak, Cary has won four games in a row and is in prime position to make a run at the regular-season conference title in the next few weeks. The team will return to the court Tuesday when it hosts Panther Creek.
While Stevens often shoulders the responsibility for leading the team, Daly says that the talent and involvement of other players could be the key to winning the conference. He points to senior captain and four-year player Mallory Curtis as one of these keys. According to Daly, Curtis is the best three-point and free-throw shooter on the team.
"When we get production from her, she is definitely a key," Daly said. "She can bring the ball up under pressure, get us into our offense and hit big shots when we need her to."
Five-foot-ten junior Meredith Courtney is another of the team's captains. One of the team's best on-ball defenders, Courtney is typically responsible for defending the opponents' best offensive weapon. Daly says this is a role she embraces. In addition, Daly points to six-foot-two post player Brooke Anthony as a powerful offensive complement to Stevens.
There is no doubt this year's Cary team is filled with talent beyond just one high-profile player. As Daly plans for the team's last leg of the regular season before participating in the conference tournament and attempting a run in the state playoffs, he says putting all of his pieces together and getting his players to all play their best games at the same time will be important.
"We've got a lot of kids who can play," Daly said. "We always talk about playing to your strengths and not doing things you aren't capable of doing, and if we can consistently get that together, we're going to be a tough out."
One way or another, the time is coming for the SWAC to be decided. Cary hosts a rematch with school rival and fellow conference-leader Apex on Feb. 4. In another contest of conference leaders, Cary plays on the road against Athens Drive in the teams' regular-season finale on Feb. 14.
Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT
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