Stepheson Powers H-W to Win

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. --- Cleveland High School's strategy for stopping Alex Stepheson was clear from the opening tip. With no one on their roster taller than 6-4, the plan was to grab, push and even bait Harvard-Westlake's 6-10 star.

Did the game plan work? Yes, in that Stepheson was limited to six field goals, fouled out and was hit with a technical.

But the Tar Heel signee still managed to post (unofficially) 14 points (6-9 FG), 11 rebounds and nine blocks – and, most importantly, Harvard-Westlake won Wednesday in pool play at the Ocean View Tournament of Champions.

All of his field goals came from close range: a dunk off an offensive rebound, a low post feed and lay-in, two offensive put backs, a short jump hook that banked in and finally a jumper in the paint. And when he chose not to make a move against a double- or triple-team, he made some impresses passes to open teammates (recording three assists).

"In the post he's pretty hard to stop," H-W coach Greg Hilliard told Inside Carolina postgame. "He'll either score or he'll dish real well as you can see."

However, Stepheson's known most for his rebounding and shotblocking and he lived up to that reputation. He patrolled the lane in his team's zone defense and ensured that no Cleveland players had an uncontested drive (though a few questionable foul calls on his block attempts ultimately led to him fouling out with 2:37 left in the fourth quarter), while also serving as a nearly unstopped force on both the offensive and defensive boards.

As for the physical play, Stepheson took the abuse for nearly three quarters. When they pushed, he didn't budge. When they held, he muscled through it. And when they talked trash, he didn't reciprocate. Apparently, he welcomes the aggressive style.

"He established himself very early and did very well," Hilliard said. "He likes that kind of a game. He enjoys the defensive pressure and he rises to it."

But even Stepheson can reach his limit. When a Cleveland player took some cheap shots in a scuffle for a loose ball, Stepheson pushed him off and was awarded with one end of an offsetting double-technical call.

"He got distracted with some of the physical stuff that was going on and he got chippy himself," Hilliard said.

In fact, there were some observers wondering if his opponents would enact a comeback plan of "Hack-a-Stepheson," as he struggled from the line. He missed his first six foul shots, and ended up 2-of-9 from the line. Was this a fluke?

"Last night he was 9-of-10, so – yeah," Hilliard responded. "But tonight he couldn't hit one to save his life."

* The game itself was no contest until late in the fourth quarter. Harvard-Westlake jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first and coasted, up by double-digits, until Cleveland made a game of it late.

* Stepheson had one of his future coaches in the stands, as North Carolina assistant Joe Holladay was in attendance.

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