Stevenson gets a humbling national-level reminder
Top-ranked Stevenson is still unbeaten.
In Illinois, that is.
The only two losses for the state's best team have come at the hands of top-notch, out-of-state competition, teams that are ranked nationally. Just like the Patriots (16-2).
Stevenson's most-recent loss, and its most lopsided loss of the Jalen Brunson era, was last weekend in the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. The Patriots lost to Findlay College Prep out of Nevada, 84-58.
Findlay College Prep is the No. 1-ranked team in the USA Today Top 25 national high school poll.
"They pretty much waxed us," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. "Of course, you get upset and disappointed to lose by that much, even to a really great team.
"It gives you pause that there is a team out there that is definitely a lot better than us. It reminds us that there are still plenty of things for us to work on and that it takes a really good collective effort to be able to beat a team like that."
Findlay features several big-name players, including guard Allonzo Trier, who scored 27 points on the Patriots and will be playing next year at Arizona. Another player on that team is going to Auburn, while another will play at UNLV.
Of the 11 players on Findlay's roster, 11 have either accepted or have been offered Division I scholarships.
"It's really an exceptional team," Ambrose said of Findlay. "The depth they had on that team was impressive."
Stevenson also saw some impressive competition over the holidays, splitting a pair of games in West Virginia at the Research Cancer Classic in early January.
The Patriots defeated Gonzaga Prep out of Washington D.C. (76-70) and lost to Chaminade out of St. Louis (88-81). Chaminade is ranked 32nd in the country, just ahead of Stevenson (35th), which boasts its own big names in Brunson and Connor Cashaw.
Brunson, who scored 48 points on Chaminade and is the top-rated point guard in the country, will be playing at Villanova next year while Cashaw is going to Rice.
"It's been fun to see such high-level players from all over the country on the court at the same time," Ambrose said. "The one thing that was obvious to us is that Jalen and Connor fit right in. They were obviously at the same level as those other guys, even above.
"Playing in these big games and in these tournaments has put a little bit of an extra spotlight on us. I think that's been fun for the kids. It's a little compliment to them to have been invited. It's been a chance for them to puff out their chests a bit, knowing that all the hard work over the years has paid off."
Poor Milik Yarbrough.
It's possible that his days as Lake County's all-time leading scorer in boys basketball could be numbered. And the ink on his name in the record books is barely dry.
He assumed the title less than a year ago, ending his career at Zion-Benton with 2,621 points to pass up Deerfield's Ryan Hogan (2,407). Yarbrough is now a freshman forward for the St. Louis University basketball team.
Hot on Yarbrough's trail is Stevenson senior guard Jalen Brunson, who is sitting on 2,338 career points. With eight regular season games left, Brunson could break the county scoring record if he maintained his season scoring average (24 ppg) through the sectional final.
Stevenson has advanced to the state finals in Peoria in each of the last two seasons.
"I don't know how long the record would stand if Jalen would get it," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said with a laugh. "There are so many more kids coming up as freshmen now, it seems that teams are scoring more points, there are more opportunities.
"But it would still be a really great accomplishment. There have been some really good players in Lake County, especially in recent years with Ben Brust (Mundelein), Lenzelle Smith (Zion-Benton), the Paul brothers (Brandon and Darius of Warren) and Milik Yarbrough."
Hail to the bigs:
Basketball has become a guard-centric game with five-out, dribble-drive offenses and tons of 3-point shooting.
But Tuesday, two teams that are built around their bigs squared off and put some good old-fashioned post play on display. Libertyville, with 6-foot-10 center Joe Borcia and 6-foot-6 Ben Kimpler got a 54-51 win over Wauconda, which features 6-foot-8 Ben Carlson and 6-foot-6 Ricky Sidlowski.
"As a former post player, it was really fun for me to watch both sides battle and fight for post position. It was definitely a post game," said 6-foot-10 Wauconda coach Scott Luetschwager, who played center at Trinity University. "Basketball has turned into a guard game with an open floor and you don't see a lot of emphasis on the big man getting on the block and just trying to post someone up.
"It was a really good matchup to put our strengths in the post up against theirs."
Sidlowski had a team-high 18 points for Wauconda while Carlson had 14 points. Borcia and Kimpler combined for 9 points and weren't needed to do as much of the scoring since guard Paul Steinhaus scored a game-high 24 points for Libertyville.
"I thought Ben (Carlson) had a really good game," Luetschwager said. "He's the best post player I've seen with his back to the basket. Then, we've got Ricky, who has also gotten really good at his post moves and is a great complement to Ben."
It wasn't that Michael Benko was breaking records or eliciting oohs and ahhs by making impossible shots.
But the Grayslake Central senior forward certainly made quite an impression over the holidays at the State Farm Classic down in Bloomington.
"I got a ton of compliments about Michael while we were down there," Grayslake Central coach Kosta Kougias said. "Other coaches were coming up to me and telling me how impressed they were with how hard Michael works on the floor."
Benko is averaging 8.3 points and 5 rebounds per game and is Grayslake Central's "hard hat and lunch pail" player. He typically guards the other team's best player, and he's big on the hustle plays, like going after offensive rebounds and loose balls.
"What he gets offensively is off of hustle," Kougias said. "He'll get an offensive rebound, he'll hustle to keep possessions alive. That energy carries over to the defensive end. Michael is a high-energy kid and we give him some really tough defensive assignments. He plays as hard for 32 minutes as some kids would for two minutes. He's got a non-stop motor."
When all five Vernon Hills starters were struggling to score in the first half Monday at Lake Zurich, senior forward Sam Rattner was challenged to provide an even bigger jolt off the bench than normal.
The 6-foot-1 super sub did just that, and then some. He scored 11 of the Cougars' 18 first-half points by hitting all three of his 3-point field goal attempts.
"I love it. I love coming off the bench," Rattner said of his role. "If our guys are struggling a little bit, they always know they've got me coming in, as well as Jackie (Li) and Davion (Brown)."
Rattner wound up with 17 points on five 3-pointers. He was definitely a bright spot in an otherwise rough night for Vernon Hills, which was playing in the final game of the Martin Luther King tournament at Lake Zurich.
"Sam is a great kid. He doesn't start but he's always ready to play when you put him in," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "He's great at spot-up threes and bringing positive energy off the bench. That's kind of Sam's game. His eyes are always like, 'When am I going in?'"
Missing two straight days of practice is the last thing a basketball coach wants to do in the middle of the season.
But Corey Knigge of Mundelein had more pressing matters to attend to this week. His 14-month-old son Conner was in the hospital with serious breathing problems.
Doctors believe little Conner contracted a virus that brought on pneumonia. Much to Knigge's relief, Conner was finally sent home Thursday after three days at Children's Memorial. Knigge planned to return to sidelines for games this weekend.
"It was really hard to see him struggling to breathe like that," Knigge said of his son. "We're just really glad he's doing better now and can be at home."
Knigge is ready to get back on schedule, too, but wasn't worried while he was gone. Assistant coach Andy Rochon, who played for Knigge at Mundelein, stepped in to handle everything.
"It's not easy being gone like that and I didn't like it," Knigge said. "But when I was an assistant, I had to coach some games and practices for (former Mundelein coach Dick Knar) when his father was sick, and things went just fine.
"That's why you surround yourself with good people. You know it's not the end of the world if you can't be there. That made me feel better while I was gone."
It's been another rough season for Mundelein, which is currently 1-19 in the wake of last year's 2-28 campaign.
The Mustangs' schedule hasn't helped either. They've played six ranked teams, including Stevenson, Lake Forest, Lake Zurich, Uplift, St. Charles East and Normal.
One of their better moments came against another formidable foe, Normal West. Mundelein dropped that game by only 3 points and Tyler Olson had 31 points on eight 3-pointers.
"That was probably our best 32 minutes of the year and Tyler played really well," Mundelein coach Corey Knigge said. "We've had a really tough schedule and we've had a tough season.
"But our guys have kept working and playing hard. I don't like moral victories, but a lot of coaches have come up to me this year and said, 'Man, your guys play hard.' That is something to hang our hats on because it would be easy with only one win not to compete or show up. Now, we've just got to execute better."