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Caleb Turrentine / The Herald Elmore County’s Payton Stephenson (2) drives the ball against Horseshoe Bend’s Landon Cotney.

After falling to Tallassee in the Elmore County Tournament championship game, Elmore County’s basketball team got a much-needed break. The Panthers had played seven games in an 11-day span before a two-week break.

Payton Stephenson took advantage of the time off, getting in the gym every day during the break. And it showed when the Panthers returned to the court Monday night against Horseshoe Bend.

Stephenson led Elmore County to a 51-18 win over the Generals as Stephenson led all players with 19 points and stuffed the stat sheet. He added five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. Stephenson is the Elmore County Player of the Week.

“The best thing about him is you don’t worry about him losing his touch because he works all of the time,” ECHS coach Rodney Taylor said. “He loves to play and work on his game and it’s hard to beat that combination.”

Stephenson scored 12 points in the first half to help the Panthers lead by as many as 23 in the first 13 minutes. Stephenson scored on the first play and he never had less points than Horseshoe Bend as a team.

“We were in control from the beginning,” Stephenson said. “We knew we were better than them but we just have to play like that against some of those better teams.”

Most of Elmore County’s success came in transition as the Panthers forced 24 turnovers. Stephenson led the break at times but Taylor wanted everyone to start pushing the ball off long rebounds and steals which often led to the ball ending in Stephenson’s hands closer to the basket.

“Knowing that my teammates are going to get down the court with me helps out a lot,” Stephenson said. “When we push the ball, the more people we have down there, the better chance we have to score. We still have to work on our finishing though.”

Despite the big victory, Stephenson was not fully satisfied with his performance as he expects more from himself with area play beginning.

“We didn’t play our best game even though we were up by a lot,” Stephenson said. “Defense was a little sloppy and we have to get better at running in transition. I have to control the offense better. I’m going to get pressured every game really hard so I think I have to do a better job of trusting my teammates to have my back.”

Elmore County has struggled with turnovers against some of its better opponents but Stephenson helped limit that against Horseshoe Bend. The Panthers had just nine turnovers and Stephenson finished with one but he said that one will stick with him more than a lot of his good plays.

“Sometimes it’s about him being too aggressive,” Taylor said. “When I pulled him there late, he said he slipped but I told him he slipped because he tried to drive between two or three people. He can’t do that kind of stuff.”

Taylor has had high expectations for his freshman point guard since the season began but he said Stephenson has come a long way since that first game. Taylor said having a true point guard the team and coaching staff can trust makes things easier to prepare for.

“As a coach, that gives me more of a comfort level because I have a point guard,” Taylor said. “This is still a game of guards.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.