As usual, the “Champions of the Court Crown” traveling trophy will go to the winner of the annual Terre Haute North vs. Terre Haute South girls high school basketball clash.
This year, the regular-season matchup will be played at 6 p.m. Friday at Hulman Center.
A year ago, North’s girls defeated South 67-33 to regain possession of the Crown as guard Zoe Stewart — then a junior — paced the Patriots with 26 points.
The 5-foot-9 Stewart is back for her final season with the Patriots (14-6 overall, 2-1 Conference Indiana) before she takes her talents to future Missouri Valley Conference member Murray State University. In North’s last two contests, she’s broken the single-game school record for scoring with 42 points against Southport last Saturday and 45 points against Marshall on Tuesday.
“Honestly, it’s just been my mental approach,” Stewart said, explaining her recent offensive explosions. “It’s really just being locked in. I think everybody knows that this season is about to die down. We’ve got about four games left [in the regular season]. We’re about to get into sectional season. So I’m really just trying to stay locked in.”
Stewart is locked in all right.
This season, she is averaging 23.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3 steals and 2.1 assists per outing while boosting her four-year career point total to 1,467. North’s all-time leader is 1999 graduate Jennifer Turner with 1,607 points. North has four regular-season games, counting tonight’s, plus potential IHSAA state tournament games remaining. That means Stewart has a chance to catch Turner if she continues to score around her average or higher.
Stewart praised her teammates — “they advocate for me,” she says — for unselfishly feeding her the ball when she has a chance to make baskets.
So a natural question to ask first-year North coach Nathan Dillion about Friday is, how will Stewart affect the game?
It figures he would start bragging about her defense first.
“Zoe obviously has been in a groove offensively, but where she has really started to excel is defensively,” Dillion told the Tribune-Star. “She has 18 steals in the past two games and 25 in the past three. She has taken a great amount of pride in her defense and our team’s defense because we know that it ultimately will lead to us playing our best ball, getting everyone some easy shots in transition and getting everyone going early.
“She’s been a great leader on and off the court and wants the best for the program and her teammates. I usually joke around with her that I need to start giving her parts of my paychecks because she’s like another coach on the court. It’s unreal how high of a basketball IQ she has.”
Cole Berry is the first-year coach for South (2-14, 0-3). He knows stopping Stewart is going to be difficult.
“She is a good player,” he said. “It will take a total team effort for us to be successful Friday evening.
“We are growing and learning from our mistakes. We have had a rough stretch, but the main thing is we are staying positive and taking things away from our experiences.”
If the Braves want to try a unique (five-on-one?) defense to slow down Stewart, North can turn to 5-7 junior guard Preslee Michael (8.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.8 steals per contest) for production.
Whether Stewart ends up scoring a lot of points (odds-on favorite) or very few, either way, it won’t matter to her as long as North keeps the Crown.
“Obviously, the seniors want to win and I want to win,” Stewart emphasized. “I’m excited and we’re all really up for it. It’s sad at the same time because this is the last one. This is it. . . . But I want to go out there and give it my all.”
Dillion has no doubt that that’s exactly what Stewart will do Friday.
“In every sense of the word, she is a competitor and wants to be the absolute best she can be,” he pointed out. “And she is on a great path so far.”
After she graduates from North, that path will lead Stewart to Murray, Ky., home of Murray State. Last week, MVC officials announced that the Racers will join their conference for the 2022-23 school year, coincidentally Stewart’s first at the collegiate level.
Sooooooo, Stewart should be able to visit Terre Haute at least once a season when Murray State visits Indiana State for games at Hulman Center.
“I’m really excited about that,” she admitted. “There will be a lot of competition there.”