It's another special night for Stevenson
The site of Jalen Brunson on a high school basketball court often flustered Stevenson opponents.
That Stevenson honored the best player in its history with a pregame ceremony on Friday night could have caused even the home team to lose its focus on beating Warren. But then, little has fazed the Patriots all season long.
Another potential distraction was not one at all for Stevenson, which did what it typically did when Brunson played point guard for the varsity from 2012-2015. The Patriots won, convincingly, and by doing so captured a conference championship - something they also made a habit of doing during Brunson's reign.
Matthew Ambrose's game-high 21 points led the way, as Stevenson won 59-48 on a night the seniors played their final home game. The Patriots improved to 23-3 and 12-1 in the North Suburban Conference, clinching a share of the title. They can win the NSC championship outright with a win at Lake Forest next Wednesday.
"This group works extremely hard," Ambrose, the junior guard, said after shooting 7 of 11 from the floor (3 of 5 from the three-point range) and 4 of 5 from the foul line. "Every day at practice we're working hard, working hard, and we're getting better. We went up to Waukegan (on Tuesday) and got a great win there, and we couldn't let up for this one. We were telling our guys that this one was just as important because it's the last time the seniors would get to play on this court and we were winning it for them."
Brunson, who followed up a state championship at Stevenson by winning two national titles at Villanova before being drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the 33rd pick in the NBA Draft last summer, had a front-row seat for the action. Before the game, he addressed the large crowd, and Stevenson honored him by unveiling a banner as well as a frame with his No. 15 jersey.
"It means the world to me," Brunson said. "I'm really thankful that I get to come back here. When you're a little kid, when you're actually here, you're not playing to have a night like this. You're playing just to get better and be the best player you can be."
Stevenson's special season has also included honoring head coach Pat Ambrose for his 400th win and assistant Paul Swan for his 50th season of coaching.
"A lot of sideshows," Pat Ambrose said after his Patriots won their 14th game in a row. "But they're good. I'm not complaining about them because you'd rather have those (than not). It does attract a little bit of a crowd."
Stevenson was aware of a potential trap game against Warren (13-15, 5-8) after the Patriots' overtime victory at Waukegan, which was a battle for first place. Stevenson spotted the Blue Devils a 15-9 lead after one quarter but never lost its composure. Matt Kaznikov (6 points), Evan Ambrose (5 points) and Matthew Ambrose sank 3-pointers in the second quarter, as Stevenson outscored the visitors 20-10. Matthew Ambrose's right-corner 3 with 3 seconds left had the Patriots up 29-25.
Stevenson then opened the second half with an 8-2 run that included a 3-pointer by John Ittounas (14 points) and a jump hook by Matthew Ambrose, who also sank another 3-pointer in the quarter. Luke Chieng, Stevenson's only senior starter, sank a 3-pointer in the fourth, as the Patriots stretched their lead to as many as 17.
"We're a connected team," Pat Ambrose said. "The kids really know what to do and they really stay with each other, and they stayed focused all week long."
Warren received 11 points from Adnan Sarancic and 10 from Juan DelaCruz. Blue Devils coach Jon Jasnoch has seen the Patriots win consistently year in and year out, even without Brunson on their roster, and knows why they're successful.
"It always starts with defense," Jasnoch said. "They play really disciplined defense. Scoring is going to be hard against them because they play really good defense inside, out. ... And then offensively, they execute. They set good screens, they move the ball well, and they play really good team offense. That's the consistency over the years."