PEORIA — With a confident, championship bounce in their step — and why would it be anything but? — Simeon’s basketball players skipped onto the Civic Center court toting team posters.
Stevenson, unassuming as always, carried nary a jitter in the biggest game in program history.
When unrolled, the colored poster, which the players handed to starry-eyed fans young and old, revealed tuxedo-wearing Wolverines and the three state championship trophies they’ve hoisted the last three years.
“Usually we always do it at the Pontiac holiday tournament,” said Jabari Parker, Simeon’s 6-foot-8, Duke-bound guard/forward/center. “We give gifts out to the crowds to show our appreciation.”
Five minutes into Saturday night’s Class 4A state championship game, Simeon’s Kendall Pollard “posterized” a Patriot with a thunderous one-handed dunk. Russell Woods followed moments later with another poster moment, jamming an alley-oop, and Simeon was just getting its move on en route to a 58-40 victory.
Playing in its first state championship game, Stevenson suffered its first loss of 2013. The Patriots, who finished 29-5 in having their 19-game winning streak snapped, had not been dealt a defeat since New Year’s Eve against Oswego at Proviso West.
“We were in there for a little while,” said coach Pat Ambrose, whose Patriots trailed by just 7 at halftime. “We just kind of got worn down. (Simeon) was a little tougher. We just didn’t shoot well. But our kids are warriors. Our kids are awesome. I just can’t stop talking about their high character.”
Parker’s 20 points and 8 rebounds paced Simeon, which finished 30-3 in capturing its fourth state championship in a row and sixth in seven years. (The Wolverines finished second in Class 3A 2008).
Stevenson gave Simeon a game for most of the first half, before the Wolverines pulled away.
“They had a lot of open shots that they were hitting,” Parker said of the Patriots. “They were real destructive out on the arc. They took advantage of the curls and the switches, and they really moved well without the ball.”
Jalen Brunson scored 13 of his team-high 14 points in the opening half, with his second 3-pointer of the game pulling Stevenson within 31-24. The stellar sophomore’s only point of the second half came with 2:35 to go in the fourth. Andy Stempel added 13 points (three 3s).
“They had a lot of eyes on me,” Brunson said of the Wolverines. “The help defense was everywhere. I tried to create for my teammates.”
Stevenson rebounded from the back-to-back dunks by Pollard and Woods in the opening quarter, as Brunson drained a 3 and then a 19-footer. Connor Cashaw (7 points) finished a drive to pull the Patriots even, but Woods put back his own miss to beat the buzzer.
A Stempel 3 had Stevenson within 16-15 early in the second quarter, but Kendrick Nunn’s 3 and Pollard’s layup extended the Simeon lead to 21-15. Parker showed off his range with a 3-pointer during a 10-6 run that moved his team’s advantage to 31-21 late in the half.
“There were no nerves (before the game),” Brunson said. “Anything can happen in high school basketball. We really believed that. Our confidence and work ethic had really gotten better over the season. We just said we’re not going to back down and step up to the challenge.”
Simeon used a 7-0 run to open the third and built its lead to 16 points. Another 3 by Stempel had Stevenson within 44-31 going into the fourth. But Simeon continued to pull away, dominating inside and overpowering a Patriots team that was at a huge height disadvantage.
Besides Parker, the Wolverines got double-digit scoring efforts from 6-7 Woods (14 points, 10 rebounds) and the 6-5 Pollard (10).
“Jabari’s a wonderful player. I can’t say anything bad about him,” Brunson said. “He’s also a wonderful person. Jabari’s Jabari. We knew we couldn’t stop him. We just tried to contain him.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.