CARY — For the past three years, a Holly Springs-Cary girls basketball game might bring out college recruiters from throughout the South to see two of the nation’s top prospects, Holly Springs’ Kiara Leslie and Cary’s Azura Stevens.
The seniors were in the Cary gym Friday night for a crucial Southwest Athletic Conference game, but both sat out with injures as the Hawks won 53-36.
Cary (10-2, 2-1) likely only needed to adapt to playing without the Duke-bound Stevens for one game. The 6-foot-5 center sprained her foot a week ago and was told by her doctor to take at least a week off before returning to the court.
But Holly Springs (9-2, 2-1) is without Maryland-bound Leslie for the remainder of the season. She underwent hip surgery on Dec. 26 to repair an injury first suffered in the spring playing for her club team. During arthroscopic surgery on Dec. 26, her doctor told her he only found cartilage damage and not the bone or tendon damage that he feared.
What worked: Holly Springs is adapting to the loss of Leslie – she averaged 20.3 points and 11.9 rebounds as a junior but only 13.8 points in five games as a senior while trying to play through the injury – with more pressing on defense. The Hawks forced numerous turnovers they converted into points en route to a 26-15 halftime lead.
“We have to use defensive pressure and score off of turnovers,” Holly Springs coach Richard Young said. “It’s going to take a team effort on defense for us.”
Brianna Tate, a 5-foot-6 sophomore, led Holly Springs with 16 points.
Unsung hero: Without the 5-11 Leslie, freshman Kayla Arthur is Holly Springs’ only player taller than 5-8. The 6-foot Arthur was out of the lineup for three weeks until she was cleared from a concussion to play in Friday’s game. Despite the layoff she scored four points and pulled down rebounds to demonstrate an ability to fill some of Leslie’s missing inside play.
Needs improvement: Cary hoped to show it is more than a one-player team without Stevens, who averages 31.5 points a game. But the Imps didn’t score their 32nd point until 1:36 remained in the game when they trailed 51-32 on a free throw by Brooke Anthony-Robinson.
The Imps were held to single-digit scoring in the first (eight), second (seven) and fourth (eight) quarters. Mallory Curtis, a 5-7 senior, led Cary as the only player in double figures with 11 points.
Feeling the impact: Cary shared the conference lead at 2-0 with Apex entering the new year before the loss to Holly Springs dropped the Imps into a tie with the Hawks and four other teams.
Yes, a six-way tie for first was created as Apex lost to Athens Drive 58-56 in a game completed after Cary-Holly Springs.
“Apex is still the top dog,” Cary coach Pat Daly said. “They play great team defense. We’ve got some work to do. I thought we played with some grit and toughness. We came back and tied the game (at 28-28 in the third quarter), but we self-imploded against the press and that had nothing to do with (playing without Stevens).”
Final comment: Stevens and Leslie were teammates on the same club team, and they chatted briefly at center court after the game.
“I told her to keep her head up and stay strong ,” Stevens said. “She’s a great player.”