Stevenson shines in the bright lights at Lake Zurich
Stevenson forward Justin Smith walked into Lake Zurich's gym and his eyes lit up.
New LED lights were just installed, replacing the old drowsy lighting, and the bright bulbs shined on the basketball court.
"I was confused," Smith said. "I was like, 'Why is it like that?' But I liked it. Usually, it's pretty dark in there (even) with the lights on. With just the spotlight on, I had more energy."
Stevenson didn't need a wake-up call Tuesday night, though the new lights probably didn't hurt. Smith and his teammates were understandably energized from the start. The Patriots cranked up their defensive intensity in the fourth quarter, nearly pitching a shutout, and captured a 52-40 win to clinch a share of the North Suburban Conference Lake Division championship.
Stevenson (18-6, 8-2) can win the division outright for the fourth year in a row with a victory Friday night at Zion-Benton, which lost to the Patriots 64-51 less than two weeks ago. Stevenson raps up NSC Lake play a week from Friday against Libertyville.
Lake Zurich (18-8, 6-4) has Libertyville (Friday) and Warren (a week from Friday) left in NSC Lake play. The Bears were trying to sweep the season series from Stevenson after winning 47-41 in Lincolnshire Dec. 16.
A more patient and disciplined Patriots squad was determined not to let that happen.
"We moved the ball much better (compared to the first game)," point guard Rodney Herenton Jr. said. "We weren't taking shots off the third pass. We were taking them off the 13th pass."
Smith led Stevenson with 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Ryuji Aoki scored 10 of his 15 points (three 3-pointers) in the third quarter, while Herenton had all 11 of his points in the first half in helping the visitors go into the intermission up 26-25.
Nick Meyer and Nick Penny paced Lake Zurich with 16 and 12 points, respectively. At halftime, each senior had 10 points, including two 3-pointers apiece.
"That was on our board at halftime," Patriots coach Pat Ambrose said. "They're good players. Whether we gave them an inch or a foot, they made it. Let's give them credit."
Herenton guarded point guard Penny, the Bears' leading scorer, the entire night. Penny fired up only 8 shots, making three, as Herenton did well denying him the ball.
"The first half he made a couple of spot-up shots and got to the free-throw line," Herenton said. "We can't have their best two players in double digits in the first half. The second half, especially that fourth quarter, we made them uncomfortable. We pressured them, we didn't let them use their screens, and we started switching."
Stevenson took a 44-38 lead into the fourth, and the scoreboard didn't budge until Smith sank 2 free throws with 2:20 left. Aoki made a pair of tosses himself with 1:51 to go, and then Jordan Newman (5 points) knocked in a pair from the line with 58 seconds left.
"It felt like it was 44-38 forever," said coach Billy Pitcher, whose Bears shot 1 of 5 from the floor in the fourth, while committing four of their 12 turnovers. "We made a couple of turnovers and then we got out of sync. We couldn't get any possessions, and they had some long possessions. They did a great job of, knowing they were up, controlling the tempo and controlling the clock."
Lake Zurich didn't score until, off an inbounds play under Stevenson's basket, Brett Hensley fed Meyer for a layup with 47 seconds left, making it 50-40.
"And it's a play we knew about," Ambrose said.
Stevenson's fourth-quarter defense was just another bright spot, so to speak.
"That was impressive," Smith said. "That's just a testament to how far we've come from the beginning of the season until now."