By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – Perhaps Stephen Thomas is a long way from the inevitable ‘senior moment’ that means old age is casting a lengthening shadow. After all, Lawrence North’s first-year head coach is still in his mid-30s, which means legendary Ben Davis boss Stan Benge has been coaching longer than Thomas has been alive. Let that sink in for a moment.
Thomas, a former Indianapolis city star at Cathedral, looks like he’s still in playing shape. So he’s got a few years of vitality left. However, as every parent will eventually learn with a gasp of horror mixed with disbelief, he’s starting to have those “parenting moments” where he says things he heard his parents say. We all swear that won’t happen, yet here we are.
For Thomas, who has guided Lawrence North to the Class 4A semistate semifinal, his “moment” is coachspeak, blurting out instructions and wisdom he heard from his former coaches and mentors. Then it struck him . . . “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve heard myself say things that ‘Oh man, it sank in,’” he admitted. It’s amazing how smart parents – and coaches – suddenly become as the years skim past like a flipbook.
How much as Thomas learned? He’s about to find out when he leads the Wildcats into a high-stakes rematch with Benge’s Giants in the second semifinal on Saturday at Southport. No.7 Bedford North Lawrence (24-3) will clash with No.9 Center Grove (22-4) in the 10 a.m. opener, with the winners to return and collide for the title at 8 p.m.
Lawrence North (18-9) isn’t far removed from its back-to-back runs to the state championship game, capped by the 2020 title. Thomas, who played college basketball at Dayton and IUPUI, was a part of that coaching staff under Chris Giffin, so the transition to a senior-led ballclub was smooth. And successful, with this deep postseason experience.
“With those seniors, a lot of things I hear in the locker room and in practice, I’ve been so impressed with their leadership,” Thomas said. “They’ve really bought into me in my first year. That stuff sunk in, and it’s paying off now.”
Those seniors include scoring leader Monica Williams (a Ohio University recruit averaging 13.8 points and 2.5 assists) and Laniya Early (9.0, 4.8 rebounds). Add balance to the lineup with 6-1 sophomore Jamaya Thomas (7.9), sophomore Kya Hurt (7.5) and junior guard Kamara Mills (8.3).
“Each one has the potential to hit double figures,” Thomas said. “When they all come together, we’re tough to beat. It’s played a key in our success.”
What about the Giants? True to their nickname, they have towers in the paint. Ben Davis (also 18-9) will feature 6-3 senior Cristen Carter, a Miami of Ohio recruit totaling 18.4 points and 12.6 boards, plus 5-10 senior Taylor Guess (11.9, 7.2 rebounds). Any guess to the Ben Davis point of attack?
“Our girls look for Cristen quite a bit, and she’s had a really nice year,” Benge said. “She’s a great kid, works hard, a super person. We look to do things inside. Hopefully Lawrence North lets us.” Well, that might not happen, but then the Wildcats might not be able to stop it.
“It’s their presence in the paint and their presence on the glass, given their team second-chance, or third-chance, opportunities,” Thomas said. “We have to be aware of where they are. And they’ve got other talented players that are under that radar, can strike at any moment.”
Lawrence North won the regular-season collision 63-62 on Jan. 21. The Giants had a last possession to force overtime, but the successful shot that was launched was only a two-pointer instead of a trey. Williams and Early had 14 points each for the Wildcats, while Carter totaled 22 points and 18 rebounds.
“We’re two fairly evenly-matched teams,” Benge said. “It gives both teams a chance to see what the other did well, weaknesses and strengths. Don’t take too much from whether you won or lost.”
“It’s a rivalry in the conference, with our two programs having the success we’ve had over the years,” Thomas said. “It always adds that extra to it. The fact we got a one-point win in January gives them that extra fuel to their preparation, knowing the competitors they are.”
Benge ranks second on the career coaching list with 688 career wins, including four state championships (2000-01, plus 2009-10). He’s seen it all, done it all, won it all during his 36 total seasons on the sideline. The term legend gets overused, but in this case it’s justified.
“Any time you get to be on the other end of that, in Indiana high school basketball, it’s special,” Thomas said. “Being a player myself, growing up in this state, I cherish that stuff. Being able to say I got to go against some of the better players in the state as an athlete, now I get to coach against some of the greatest ones. It’s an honor.”
CLASS 4A SEMISTATE
Saturday at Southport
BEN DAVIS vs. LAWRENCE NORTH
Records: Ben Davis 18-9; Lawrence North 18-9
Sagarin ratings: Ben Davis 91.56; Lawrence North 92.93
Last meeting: On Jan. 21 at Lawrence North, the Wildcats scratched out a 63-62 victory. Laniya Early and Monica Williams had 14 points each for Lawrence North. Cristen Carter had 22 points and 18 rebounds for the Giants.
Game notes: Ben Davis has won five semistate titles, the last in 2010. Lawrence North has won two semistates, the last in 2020. Ben Davis coach Stan Benge ranks second on the career coaching list with 688 wins.
Ben Davis Giants
F – Taylor Guess 5-10 Sr.
C – Cristen Carter 6-3 Sr.
G – Zoe Wheeler 5-8 Jr.
G – Kaleah Toomer 5-9 Sr.
G – Kirsten Clark 5-9 Sr.
Lawrence North Wildcats
F – Kya Hurt 5-9 So.
C – Jamaya Thomas 6-1 So.
G – Monica Williams 5-9 Sr.
G – Kamara Mills 5-6 Jr.
G – Laniya Early 5-6 Sr.