Journey continues for Brunson, Stevenson
Another home victory all but official, with 2:29 left on a stopped clock, Jalen Brunson exited a basketball game on Stevenson's court one final time.
As the senior point guard took the slow walk toward his bench, where he was greeted by hugs from his coaches, Stevenson's fans slowly rose from their seats to applaud the school's all-time leading scorer, who's been piling up varsity points and thrills since his freshman year.
"I just couldn't think straight," Brunson said after scoring a game-high 31 points and grabbing 10 rebounds to lead the top-seeded Patriots to an 84-60 win over No. 9 Zion-Benton in a Class 4A regional championship game in Lincolnshire on Friday night. "It was a little upsetting, but I'm really excited that we got the win and get to move on."
If it didn't feel like the end for the Villanova recruit, it's because he and his teammates don't expect their season to wrap up until they reach Peoria in a couple of weeks.
After completing a remarkable third straight season without a loss on their home court, the Patriots move on to the Waukegan sectional. Stevenson (25-3) will play Notre Dame in a semifinal at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
"We've always loved playing here," three-year varsity forward Parker Nichols said. "We shoot great here. We love the crowd, the atmosphere. It's just a great place to play. It's sad that it's over, but we got bigger and better goals."
Justin Smith added 17 points for Stevenson. Connor Cashaw added 14 points and 11 rebounds, as the Patriots defeated their North Suburban Lake Division rival for the third time this season. It was Stevenson's third regional title in a row.
"It's crazy," said Cashaw, who like Brunson is a four-year varsity player. "I've been with this coaching staff for four years. They're like a second family. It's tough, but we still have a job to finish. We have to keep believing in ourselves and keep working hard."
Tennessee-bound Admiral Schofield racked up 23 points and 18 rebounds to pace Zion-Benton (18-9), which thought its season was over after a semifinal loss to Niles North on Wednesday. But on Thursday, Niles North self-reported a residency violation, meaning Zion-Benton was awarded the win by forfeit.
"We came in with the same Z-B grit that we played with all year," said coach Bob Worthington, whose Zee-Bees were within 3 points of the state's No. 2-ranked team late in the third quarter. "That's just how you have to approach things. Nothing's changed. We got another game. Good. We wanted another game."
Stevenson used an 11-3 run to go into halftime up 40-30, despite Brunson and Cashaw shooting a combined 7 of 26 from the floor. The Patriots were up 14 points in the third when Zion-Benton scored 11 straight points, capped by Devonte Maynard's 3-pointer, to pull within 48-45 with 3:03 to go.
Brunson then immediately answered Maynard's 3 with one of his own and sank two more 3-pointers before the quarter was over.
"We had to slow down," said Brunson, who finished with five 3-pointers. "We were playing a little out of control. We love to play fast, but we can't play out of control. Coach (Pat) Ambrose called a timeout and we refocused."
Zion-Benton never got any closer after Ryuji Aoki beat the third-quarter buzzer with a left-corner 3-pointer to give the Patriots a 62-49 lead. Stevenson's fourth-quarter highlights included Smith's second dunk and Brunson's no-look bounce pass from 25 feet away to Cashaw, who sank the layup.
Kienan Baltimore added 18 points and 9 rebounds for Zion-Benton. Maynard finished with 12 points for the Zee-Bees, who lost to the Patriots by 25 and 23 points during the regular season.
"It's like ripping a Band-Aid off twice," Worthington said of losing on the scoreboard for the second time in three days. "If there's a bad part about it, it's I got to say goodbye twice. I love all my guys. I love them. They are my sons."
"Zion's a very physical team," Nichols said. "They rebound and they're really good down low. But we're a very senior-oriented team, and we stay composed."