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PEORIA — Maybe when you grow up watching NBA games in places like the United Center and Madison Square Garden, March Madness at the Peoria Civic Center doesn't seem like such a big deal.
Stevenson's Jalen Brunson figured to have a few anxious moments, being a sophomore in the spotlight and one of the state's rising stars at the Class 4A semifinals.
But he might as well have been shooting layups in the driveway. Brunson seemed perfectly calm and relaxed, hitting 4 straight shots, including 3 from 3-point range during the opening five minutes.
That confidence eventually carried to his teammates. They did most of the scoring after Brunson tallied his team's first 11 points, and Stevenson knocked off Edwardsville 60-49.
"I just think it's really good to come out strong," Brunson said after the game. "Never be scared, never be intimidated by the big stage."
Of course, the victory comes with a questionable prize — a date Saturday against three-time defending state champ Simeon in the title game at 8:15 p.m. The Wolverines (29-3) feature Duke-bound Jabari Parker, among other Division I signees, and six players standing 6-feet-6 or taller. The next stage will be considerably larger.
"It's really a blessing," Brunson said of playing against Simeon. "We worked really hard and have to really step it up this time. We have to be perfect in everything we do. I think we're ready to accept the challenge."
Stevenson could have played Simeon in the 2007 title game, which was Derrick Rose's last high school performance, but lost in the state semifinals to O'Fallon. This is the first trip to the championship game for the Patriots boys basketball team.
"They're a big team. They're very good," Patriots coach Pat Ambrose said of Simeon. "We're ready for the challenge. Our kids love playing basketball, so we get to play another game on a Saturday night at the end of the season. As Jalen said, it's a real blessing. So we're going to look at it as an absolute challenge we want to take."
Brunson finished with 21 points, thanks in part to 5 free throws in the final minute. Senior Andrew Stempel added 14 points and sophomore Connor Cashaw scored 13. The Patriots were once again unbeatable from long range. Brunson and Stempel both went 4-for-6 from 3-point range, while Stevenson was 10-for-18 as a team.
Brunson's father, Rick, was a longtime NBA guard who now works as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Bobcats. He was doing his job Friday, with the Bobcats playing a game at Toronto, and is scheduled to be in Boston on Saturday. Rick Brunson spent three years on Tom Thibodeau's coaching staff with the Bulls before changing jobs last summer.
"Even if he doesn't come down here, he gives me a lot of good pep talks on the phone right before games," Jalen said. "So even if he doesn't come, he'll still be a big inspiration."
Brunson attempted just 2 shots and scored 2 points in the second and third quarters. But he opened the fourth with another 3-pointer, giving Stevenson its biggest lead to that point at 48-36.
Cashaw scored on a reverse scoop to make it 50-40 with 4:35 remaining. Things started to get tense when Edwardsville junior Shawn Roundtree drained a 3-pointer to trim the margin to 5 points with 3:55 remaining.
The Tigers missed a chance to get closer, so Stevenson (29-4) spread the floor and junior Matt Morrissey got a driving layin to roll over the rim and into the net, putting the Patriots ahead 52-45 with 2:41 left.
"It was just an attack," Morrissey shrugged. "Once I got in the air, that was the best way to finish."
With four starters standing 6-foot-5, Edwardsville gave Stevenson some trouble with its long-armed zone defense, forcing 10 turnovers in the first half. The Tigers didn't create many fastbreak chances, though, and Stevenson's patient ball movement solved most of the issues.
After a Harris layin brought the Tigers back within 5 points, sophomore Cameron Green hit 1of 2 free throws, then Cashaw ran the floor off a defensive rebound and finished a layin to make it 55-47 with 1:43 left.
Senior guard Garret Covington, who is headed to Western Illinois, led Edwardsville with 18 points, while Roundtree added 13. Harris, the Tigers' second-leading scorer, finished with 9 points, hit 3-of-11 shots and fouled out.
The biggest moment of the game turned out to be the second quarter. The teams were tied 15-15 after one, then Edwardsville hit 1-of-9 shots from the field and was outscored 15-5.
"I think when games get close, we get more intense on the defensive end," Stempel said. "That's kind of what got us here. We can shoot it, but we're not going to win games unless we stop the other team from scoring more points than we do."
Once Brunson scored Stevenson's first 11 points, he obviously drew more attention from defenders, but that just opened shooting space for his teammates. Justin Berkson, Stempel and Cashaw drained 3-pointers early in the second quarter and suddenly the Patriots had built a 26-17 advantage.
Stevenson unleashed a long-range barrage against Rockford Boylan in the supersectional, knocking down 10 baskets from behind the 3-point arc in the first half. They didn't match the volume on Friday, but were more efficient, hitting 6 of 9 attempts before halftime against Edwardsville.
Brunson went to the bench after picking up his second foul with 3:14 left in the second quarter, but the Tigers couldn't take advantage. Stevenson actually stretched the lead while Brunson was out, scoring the lone basket on a drive and pull-up by Morrissey to make it 30-20 at intermission.
Edwardsville brought some energy at the start of the third quarter, quickly cutting the lead to 30-26 on a free throw, 3-pointer from Harris and a push layin by Armon Fletcher.
Stevenson didn't get flustered, though. Stempel drained a 3-pointer, then Cashaw finished a pretty hanging layin on the fast break. He missed a chance for the 3-point play, but still stretched the lead back to 35-26.
After the game, Ambrose complimented the Stevenson students, who outnumbered Edwardsville's student section roughly 10-to-1.
If the Patriots' proponents stick around Saturday, they'll have a chance to witness history.