Geneva's Hart an all-around standout, winner
Looking back, there's a certain irony in Stephanie Hart making the biggest shot in Geneva history.
The same player who since fourth grade coaches have told to shoot more. The same person who when she has a good shot, would rather make the extra pass to a teammate who has a better one.
Yet there was Hart, with Geneva trailing Edwardsville 40-39 in last year's Class 4A state championship game, grabbing an offensive rebound and flipping in a putback with 1.9 seconds left. Grace Loberg intercepted Edwardsville's desperation full-court pass, and the Vikings were state champions.
Hart, this year's captain of the Daily Herald Fox Valley All-Area girls basketball team, and her Geneva teammates followed that dream season with another big year, currently 29-3 heading into this weekend's state tournament back at Illinois State.
However this season ends, the memory of 2017 will never fade.
"It's honestly still surreal," Hart said. "The fact we won and how crazy it is and we had that goal since fourth grade and it's crazy it came true. It's even crazier that we won on a buzzer-beater and even crazier I made it."
Hart's shot hit the rim, then the backboard, then the rim again before falling through. She said she's watched the replay of it "too many times to count," and that the first thing she did when she got back from state was watch the game with teammates Maddy Yelle and Brie Borkowicz.
"Honestly we were nervous," Yelle said. "Even though we knew the outcome we were sitting on the edge of the couch like 'Oh my god.' It was such an amazing experience and then to re-watch it again and see what it was like, wow. No word can compare to that."
Hart doesn't need a replay to remember the play, which started with a missed shot by Margaret Whitley, who had a game-winner of her own the night before to beat Fremd in the semifinals.
"I just kind of walked to the basket because it's second nature to me, shot goes up, go toward the basket," Hart said. "Grace was right in front of me and the ball just kind of slipped through her hands. Don't know how but it did. It literally fell into my hands, it was like a gift. I had zero clue how much time was on the clock. I just kind of tossed it up praying it would go in. It bounced around it felt like forever and it dropped in. The first thing on my mind was how much time is left. Pretty crazy.
"Me and my friends immediately started crying. That was our biggest dream. Coaches said goals were to make varsity as a freshman, and then the next one was to get to state and the next was to win state. It was so crazy that actually happened especially because we won both games on buzzer-beaters. It just seemed like a fairy tale."
Geneva coach Sarah Meadows wasn't surprised at all Hart made that play. Being in the right position for the rebound is just the kind of heads-up play she's come to expect in Hart's four years of varsity basketball.
Meadows has often called Hart the glue to the team, the player Geneva misses the most when she's not on the court.
"That's the smartness right there, hanging around, waiting for the ball to drop," Meadows said. "She was at the perfect spot. She's the smartest kid we have on the floor. She knows the game of basketball and understands it."
Hart said she prides herself on being a well-rounded player.
"I've always looked at every single aspect of basketball and want to be good at every single part," Hart said. "Defense I think is the most important part so I really work hard to lock down on the girl I have. And boxing out, seals, rebounding, all that stuff comes together."
Hart, who has an older brother Dan and older sister Victoria, originally played soccer growing up in Geneva. She said she got her start in basketball in about fourth grade when her dad was working out one day, and Hart saw a basketball in a corner.
"I just started playing with it, dribbling it, and my dad said I should try that," Hart said.
She ended up on the same Geneva feeder team with Whitley, and soon after that they were both playing AAU basketball with the Lady Lightning.
Hart switched to Evolution after several years of playing with the Lightning, but that chemistry she developed with Whitley -- and Borkowicz, Yelle and others -- has lasted and is still evident every time Geneva takes the court.
"She's one of my best friends," Yelle said. "We know each other's strengths and weaknesses and if one of us is not doing all right we'll have each other's back and get each other going. It is so fun playing with her. She's versatile. She's not selfish. She has such a high IQ. It's unbelievable sometimes, I'm like I wish I could do that."
"Stephanie is a really good team leader," senior Madison Mallory said. "She really takes control of the game and calms us down. She's a good floor leader, makes passes to who she needs to. She centers us all."
Hart and Whitley both made Geneva's varsity as freshmen. The Vikings finished 23-7, winning a sectional championship before a hard-fought supersectional loss to New Trier.
It took a few games for Hart and Whitley to play their way into the starting lineup. Once there, they never left.
"I remember her as very shy and quiet," Meadows said. "Really good presence. I liked her composure and how she carried herself as a freshman."
"I still remember the day I was told I made varsity and how excited I was," Hart said. "All the older girls really helped. I was not completely confident in myself and all those girls really helped me. Abby (Novak), Janie (McCloughan) and Grace all pushed me to be better."
As sophomores Geneva went 25-5, losing to Montini in the sectional finals before last year's 29-4 state championship team.
Meadows said she saw a big jump in Hart's game from her sophomore to her junior season, when she averaged 8.2 points and a team-best 3.7 assists and hit 34 percent of her 3-point attempts.
"For Steph, one of her biggest strengths is she can guard anybody," Meadows said. "There was a real big difference in her defense between her sophomore summer and when she came in as a junior. She was just playing phenomenal defensively."
Hart has put up similar numbers -- 10.2 points, 2.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 4.1 rebounds a game -- as a senior with one noticeable jump. She's shooting 46 percent on 3s.
And yet, those same words her first coaches gave her -- shoot more -- is something she still hears occasionally.
"She sometimes plays too unselfish," Meadows said. "We'll tell her to shoot more. But that's come a long way too. She's a lot more offensive-minded."
"I've become more confident in my shooting and driving ability but I've still tried to keep that aspect of passing and sharing with my teammates too," Hart said. "I really do enjoy making an extra pass, getting a better shot. I have a lot of faith in my teammates because I've been playing with them a long time. I just know that I might be a little open but if I make that extra pass my teammate will be even more open and have a better chance to make that shot. And if my team wins, I win. More open shots are better for the team. I just keep that in mind."
Hart will play college basketball at Lewis, a decision she made in large part because of its location.
"My family can come and support me and they are a huge part of why I play basketball," Hart said. "The coaches are really likable, they remind me of the coaches I have now. I just thought it was a program I fit into."
In four years at Geneva, Hart's teams are 106-19 with four conference, four regional, three sectional and two supersectional crowns.
And at least one state title.
"We have great coaches," Hart said. "I've learned a lot from them over the years. So many people come out to our games. We have a fun time. We are serious when we need to be but we're also fun when we need to be. All-around we have a great time. And I've never gone through a season when I thought 'Oh my gosh, I hated that.' We've really become a family and every year we get closer and closer. It's been an awesome experience."