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Even “Mr. Crabby Pants” couldn’t be too crabby on Wednesday night.
What was there to growl or groan about? Behind yet another spectacular performance by junior guard Jalen Brunson, Stevenson was in top form (or pretty darn close to it) in mowing down host North Chicago 98-68 in front of a packed gym in the North Suburban Conference boys basketball championship game.
“Well, we could have rebounded better, and in the first half, we didn’t do defensive transition real well,” said Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose, who calls himself Mr. Crabby Pants for his never-satisfied mentality. “But you know me, I’m never entirely happy. I would say we were clicking, but maybe not on all cylinders.”
The Warhawks, who have now lost to Stevenson in the conference title game for two years in a row, may argue otherwise.
They watched Stevenson (26-1) have its way on their home floor. The Patriots, who hit 64 percent of their shots from the field, got a game-high 39 points (including three 3-pointers) from Brunson. Connor Cashaw and Matt Johnson also put up big numbers, with 22 points and 16 points respectively. Like Brunson, Johnson also drained three 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, Stevenson also clamped down on defense and forced 15 North Chicago turnovers. The Warhawks, rushed at times in the halfcourt set, converted on only 43 percent of their shots.
“Practice makes perfect and we practice really hard. Nothing is given to us,” said Brunson, trying to explain Stevenson’s crispness. “We have a drill (in practice) that makes us get five stops in a row. Sometimes, it takes us two hours to get it, but we’ll get it done. We work hard to fulfil our dreams and be successful.”
Brunson, who is being courted by dozens of major Division I coaches, is having a dream season. Just five days ago, he willed Stevenson to a victory over Lake Forest by rolling up a career-high 56 points.
Against the 21-5 Warhawks, who have represented the Prairie Division in the league championship game for seven years in a row, Brunson hit 15-of-19 shots, and some were off-the-charts on the toughness scale. Brunson buried jumpers over the top of taller defenders and looked like an acrobat on some of his drives to the basket.
“He’s exceptional. It’s like he’s super-human,” Ambrose said of Brunson. “He can do whatever he wants. He’s the best player in the state, in my mind.”
Brunson scored 7 points in the first quarter to get Stevenson off to a quick start, but he didn’t do it alone. Johnson came out of the gates sizzling, too. He scored 8 first-quarter points on two big 3-pointers.
“It was a great feeling that they left me open,” smiled Johnson, who recently got his first scholarship offer, from Chicago State. “They were focused on Jalen and Connor and I got some open shots. It takes all the pressure off me.”
North Chicago put a little bit of pressure on Stevenson in the second quarter, cutting its deficit to just 6 points on a drive to the basket by Kurt Hall. But the Warhawks were never able to get closer than that.
The Patriots were up by more than 20 points for most of the fourth quarter.
“We got away from our team play, and playing defense,” said Hall, who topped North Chicago with 16 points. “That’s what was keeping us in the game. If we would have kept with that, we would have won.”
Three other players reached double-figures for the Warhawks.
JayQuan McCloud had 14 points while Jamero Shelton finished with 12 points and JaVairius Amos-Mays scored 10 points before fouling out in the fourth quarter.
“They’re just a really good team and they don’t miss a beat,” North Chicago coach Gerald Coleman said of Stevenson. “We shot the best defense we could shoot at Brunson and he’s so under control and nothing gets to him. He’s a heck of a player.
“Then we left Johnson open and you can’t do that. A team like Stevenson has been there before and the game can get tough, but it never shakes them up. They kept playing at the same level and eventually, they’ll pull away from you.”