During the off-season, Northwest Missouri State's search for their next starting point guard turned up a player who veers from the norm in terms of size and basketball background.
Monique Stevens stands just 5-3, and until two years ago, she had never experienced American basketball.
Stevens grew up and spent all of her teenage years in the town Wodonga, Victoria, Australia (pop. 31,605), a half-world away from her current residence in Maryville.
A life-long basketball enthusiast, Stevens played club ball—America's equivalent of high school basketball—for Catholic College and helped her team to a third place finish in the state. She was also part of a state-level team that won three gold medals at the Australian National Schools Basketball Tournament.
"I was always on the road for basketball," said Stevens. "Every weekend I think I was going to a tournament, always busy traveling because I lived on the border for two states."
Despite all the success her teams had, Stevens felt she was "overlooked" by American college coaches because of her height. It took a random encounter with a junior college coach from Southeast (Neb.) Community College who was scouting one of her friends for Stevens to finally get noticed.
"The coaches came to watch her play and after the game they ended up approaching me and telling me who they were and what they were doing," said Stevens. "I pretty much immediately jumped on top of that and ended up at junior college."
Stevens landed at Southeast in Beatrice, Neb., and was able to make a smooth transition to the American style of play. As a sophomore, she led her team in scoring, rebounding and assists. That same year, Southeast made its first-ever appearance in the National Junior College Tournament.
"In Australia, I was playing on state-level teams, more experienced teams," said Stevens. "I was also training with a women's team. I was getting a lot of valuable tips with them that was I just transferring into my game in junior college. We were way more structured in Australia, but American basketball is a lot more athletic, a lot faster."
Four-year colleges took notice of Stevens' standout sophomore season, among them were Northwest Missouri State. Stevens was first contacted by Northwest's staff when Gene Steinmeyer was still the head coach.
She came on a visit to Maryville last year and remembers feeling right at home.
"The team chemistry, I just hadn't seen that on a team before," said Stevens. "All the girls got along. They were like all best friends. I wanted to be part of that."
Northwest remained Stevens' preferred destination even after Steinmeyer announced his retirement last March.
She spurned other MIAA offers from Nebraska-Kearney and Southwest Baptist to sign with Northwest once Mark Kellogg was hired as the new coach.
In his first month on the job, Kellogg evaluated Stevens on film and felt very comfortable about extending an offer to her. Their interaction took place over the phone since Stevens was already back in Australia at that point.
"We just knew she was going to be our type of player" said Kellogg. "High IQ, put your body in front of people, take charges, be a scrappy type of kid. That's what we've made our living on over the years. We were expecting her to play a lot of minutes."
When the season began, Stevens and Victoria Naylor, a transfer from Towson State who sat out the 2011-2012 season, were the team's only two point guards.
In preseason, they competed for the spot vacated by three-year starter Abby Henry.
Naylor won the job initially and started the first four games, but her minutes gradually subsided in favor of Stevens.
Naylor ended up quitting the team in November, leaving Stevens as the only option to run the point.
She's now started each of the last 15 games, averaging 26.1 minutes (second-most on the team).
"The last two, three weeks now is when she finally has figured it out," said Kellogg. "She's slowed down. She understands her role. She's kind of understanding how to lead our team, how to motivate when the time comes. She's a small, dynamic player. She plays the right way to be that size."
Stevens' game contrasts sharply with that of her predecessor Henry who was a bigger, scoring point guard.
Stevens is a classic pass-first point guard that would much rather set her teammates up for open looks than look for her own shot. She ranks second in the MIAA in assists (82) and assists per game (4.3).
Stevens is also a tenacious perimeter defender, one that frustrates bigger opposing point guards because of how hard she plays on every possession. She's tied for third in the conference in steals with 2.1 per game, helping the Bearcats (11-8, 5-6) lead the conference in that department.
Shooting-wise, Stevens admits she's had a tough go of it this year.
A 13-point per game scorer in junior college, Stevens is averaging 7.3 ppg while shooting 31.7 percent and 23.7 percent from three.
Those numbers have been on the rise lately thanks to three double-digit scoring games in her last six.
Stevens had her best game as a Bearcat Thursday night in a 67-64 win over Northeastern State, scoring 20 points on 7-10 shooting and 6-9 from three.
"It's been up and down," said Stevens. "I haven't really found my shot around the three-point line which has caused a lot of frustration, but I pride myself on defense and finding the open shooters. That's what I do."
In part because of how hard she competes, Stevens earned the respect of her teammates right away, enough so that she was named a team captain.
Surrounded by teammates from nearby locales, Stevens is often the source of constant imitation for her unmistakable Australian accent.
"I'll say something and I'll hear like three or four voices mimic it," said Stevens. "That never gets old especially when we were counting in preseason, everyone wanted to count like me. They always pick on me, but it's all in good fun."
Stevens relays many of her basketball experiences with the Bearcats to her parents who still reside in Wodonga. They have yet to attend one of Stevens' games at Northwest, but always tune in online no matter the time of day.
"Whether it's 4:30 in the morning or 6:30 in the morning, they are up watching," said Stevens.
Stevens' mom stands only 5-2 and her dad is 5-7, causing Stevens to realize early on in life that she would probably be on the short side, too.
Although she'd prefer to be taller than 5-3, Stevens has found a way to become an effective MIAA point guard at that height and a player the improving Northwest women simply can not do without.
By Joey Falkoff email@example.com
The Maryville Daily Forum - Maryville, MO
By Joey Falkoff firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated Feb. 4, 2013 @ 10:18 pm
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