EARLY - Stephenville had three in double figures and rode a tenacious defensive effort to a 57-47 defeat of Class 2A Early in the season opener for both schools at Early Junior High Tuesday.

Senior post Stephanie McNeal scored 14 points and grabbed 8 rebounds to lead the Bees, while Mara Christian knocked down 11 of her 13 in the first half to keep it close. Brianna Bledsoe posted the game’s only double-double with 10 points and 10 boards.

It was the defense that made the difference, however, as the Bees forced turnovers and strung together stops to make up for a poor shooting performance that included 12 consecutive misses from downtown in the first half.

Kelsey Evans and Bethany Young each had four steals while Young deflected four additional passes and Evans tipped three. JerriLynn Thorpe collected three steals and Christian had three deflections.

“We try to emphasize all the different areas except scoring,” Thorpe said. “Little things like deflections go a long ways. I believe that if you do the little things right, the scoring will usually take care of itself.”

The Honeybees trailed by as many as seven in the first half before Christian finally ended the drought from beyond the arc. Bledsoe connected on a trey a few moments later, and the Bees pulled to within three, 25-22 at the break.

“The offense looked more stagnant than it really was,” Thorpe said of the first-half struggles against Early’s zone defense. “We were getting every look we wanted, we just couldn’t knock down shots.  Part of that is two of our good guards are fresh from volleyball and haven’t taken enough shots yet, and some it was just first game jitters. Everyone was trying to be the one to make a play and sometimes we rushed our shots.”

Stepenville needed every bit of defensive effort it could muster to overcome turnovers on each of their first four second-half possessions, holding Early to just two points during the drought.

Once Stephenville did score, the flood gates were opened and forced turnovers led to a series of transition baskets and a 10-2 run to give the Bees the lead for good. Stephenville outscored Early 35-22 after halftime.

“I think the weight room and our conditioning really came into play down the stretch,” Thorpe said. “Early on, I thought (Early) was pretty crisp, but we seemed to get stronger and sharper as the game went on. Hopefully that’s something we can continue to use to our advantage.”

Thorpe said he may have been nervous before the opener that began his second tenure as head coach in Stephenville, but he didn’t feel his players were.

“It’s always nice to get a win. This group of kids doesn’t expect to lose. They put in so much work, that they expect it to lead to wins.  As coaches we’re nervous sometimes, but these kids always expect to win.”

Stephenville guns for its second straight win to begin the season on Saturday when the Honeybees host Class 5A Abilene at 2:30 p.m. at Gandy Gym. The contest was originally scheduled for Friday, but was changed due to playoff football plans.