Smith saves his best for last as Stevenson handles Zion-Benton
Chagrined because his Stevenson basketball coach Pat Ambrose pulled him from a tightly contested game against Zion-Benton during the fourth quarter, Justin Smith obeyed with pursed lips and took a seat.
"I had a rhythm and I just wanted to keep playing," Smith said. "He just said, 'Take a break, relax, and we'll get you back in (the game) in 30 seconds.' "
Ambrose did. And then Smith resumed doing his thing.
Stevenson's success hinges largely on the play of its three-year varsity player, and Smith delivered when his team needed him most Saturday night in Lincolnshire. The 6-foot-7 junior scored 9 of his 14 points in the fourth, as Stevenson pulled away to capture a 64-51 victory.
The win keeps Stevenson (16-6, 6-2) in sole possession of first place in the North Suburban Conference Lake Division. (Lake Zurich also has 2 losses in the division but has played 2 fewer games).
Point guard DeShawn Wilson Jr. (20 points, four 3-pointers) and 6-5 forward Kienan Baltimore (15 points) led Zion-Benton (15-9, 4-4), which suffered its third loss in a row, all to NSC Lake opponents.
Ryuji Aoki scored a team-high 20 points for Stevenson, which won for the eighth time in its last 10 games. Willie Herenton and Rodney Herenton Jr. added 11 and 10 points, respectively, for the Patriots. Jordan Newman drained a pair of 3-pointers.
"We obviously don't have the best point guard in the nation anymore," said Aoki, referring to Jalen Brunson. "So we need a lot more people to step up and have a bigger role on the team. It's exciting because we can show that, although (Brunson) is gone, we still have a chance to do something great."
Smith's fourth quarter also included 3 rebounds (8 total), a blocked shot and 7-of-8 shooting from the stripe.
"He made some tough buckets too," Ambrose said.
"I just wanted to win, and I felt that I would give us the best chance," said Smith, who had just 5 points, including a flying one-handed dunk and 3-pointer, in the first half. "So I did what I needed to do."
Trailing 32-30 at halftime, Zion-Benton scored the first seven points of the third quarter. Stevenson didn't score until Aoki took a pass from Willie Herenton and drained a 3-pointer to pull the Patriots within 37-35 with 2:48 left. Aoki then knocked another 3 and sank a pullup 16-footer. Willie Herenton hit a 3 himself, before Wilson's bucket in the final minute knotted the score for the Zee-Bees at 43-43 heading into the fourth.
"They were looking for me," Aoki, who scored 8 of Stevenson's 11 points in the third, said of his teammates. "It's not just my effort. It's a team effort. Rodney and Willie were giving me the ball, and the big men were screening for me to get the open shots."
Aoki finished 5 of 8 from the floor. All but one of his shots was from beyond the arc.
"We want him to shoot," Smith said. "He's our best shooter."
Ambrose was most pleased with his team's defensive stops in the second half. The Patriots limited the Zee-Bees to 21 points and 8-of-24 shooting after halftime.
"We can build on that," Ambrose said.
Led by Smith, Aoki (4 of 4), Rodney Herenton (3 of 4) and Willie Herenton (2 of 2), Stevenson went 16 of 18 from the stripe in the fourth.
"We played well," Smith said. "Coming off a Warren loss (eight days ago, before beating Mundelein on Tuesday), we really went back to the basics. We just moved the ball around and got each other involved, instead of looking for our shot first. We didn't allow them to attack the basket very much, because that's what they're best at."