West Hall coach Warren Sellers used one simple word when describing Shunquez Stephens: clutch.
And the junior forward proved himself worthy of that adjective when it mattered most.
In his team’s final five games of the season — which included the region quarterfinals, semifinals, finals and two state tournament games — Stephens averaged a team-best 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead his Spartans (19-12) to their second straight Region 7-AAA runner-up distinction and state round of 16 appearance.
“I knew (in region and state) that I had to step up and put more effort into what I was doing,” Stephens said. “This year, people underestimated us and we had to come out and prove people wrong.”
For the season, Stephens posted 15 double-doubles in 26 games and averaged 17 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
Combine those stats with his 45-percent shooting from the 3-point line, 70-percent shooting from the free throw line and 49-percent shooting from the field and its clear why Stephens is this year’s Times Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
“He’s clutch,” said Sellers of Stephens prior to West Hall’s second consecutive appearance in the Region 7-AAA championship game. “He thinks every rebound has his name on it. He isn’t that great of a jumper, but gets great position and has great hands.
“We lean on him big time, I call him the 20-10 man, and he stepped up big time for us.”
Following West Hall’s 24-7 season last year, and the graduation of seven seniors — including four starters — a down year was all but expected for the Spartans.
That expectation increased when Stephens, thanks to an ankle fracture suffered in the sixth game of the football season, was out for the first three weeks of the season.
“It was hard,” said Stephens of being out. “I felt like it was my fault that I wasn’t out there and I was almost mad at myself for getting hurt.
“But the team did well and showed a lot of heart.”
That heart would prove to be the catalyst for not only Stephens, but the Spartans late-season run.
Entering the region tournament, West Hall was 15-10 and worn down slightly because of a short bench — the Spartans rotated seven players on a good night.
But according to Stephens, the outside perception of this year’s Spartans wasn’t reality because of one thing: togetherness.
“Last year we had a lot of talent but also a lot of guys who were one-on-one players,” Stephens said. “This year’s team played more together and helped each other out on the court.
“Playing the amount of players we did was hard, especially when we played teams that went five in and five out. But really we just had to dig deep and find ways to play harder and win and that’s what we did.”
After a region tournament-opening 10-point win against White County, West Hall was set to face subregion rival Gainesville for the right to go to the state playoffs.
Behind Stephens’ team-high 21-point, 14-rebound effort, and thanks to a last second layup by Dylan Bartlett, the Spartans moved on beating Gainesville 66-65.
“Without Shunquez we wouldn’t have been in (the) contest,” said junior point guard Jarquise Young, who finished the Gainesville game with 18 points. “Without him, we wouldn’t have had a chance to make that last shot.”
Next up was Johnson in the semifinals and Stephens once again came through, scoring a team-high 24 points and grabbing 16 rebounds to lead the Spartans into the region finals and secure homecourt for the first round of the playoffs.
While West Hall didn’t win the region title, it did pull out a 61-53 against Cartersville in the first round of the state tournament and it was once again due to the performance of Stephens.
He scored 25 points and had 16 rebounds to lead West Hall into the second round of the state tournament, where the Spartans’ season ended.
“(Stephens) can score in a variety of ways, and we leaned on him hard,” Sellers said. “He made some tough plays for us this season.”
“I have to play a lot harder when the game and the season’s on the line,” Stephens said. “I have to make it my mission to get every rebound and make my shots.
“I’m confident in myself that when I get in the paint, nobody can stop me. Not to sound cocky, but I feel like nobody can stop me.”