Stevenson clinches fourth straight NSC Lake title

 
By Jeff Newton
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 2/12/2016 10:19 PM
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Try as he might, Stevenson junior Aidan O'Connell just can't seem to talk fellow junior Justin Smith into playing for the Patriots' football team.

As a quarterback on the football team, O'Connell threw his share of passes to tall wide receivers who jumped in the air to get the ball. But never did he lead a receiver quite like he led Smith on Friday night.

And after the two connected on a highlight reel alley-oop in the Patriots' North Suburban Conference Lake Division contest at Zion-Benton, O'Connell is still holding out hope that he can convince Smith.

"I'm trying to get (Justin) to come out and play football next year," O'Connell said. "I don't think I can talk him into it, though."

O'Connell floated a pass near the hoop, and out of nowhere Smith found it and flushed it for a Stevenson lead was able to protect.

The bucket came as part of an 11-4 burst that lifted the Patriots to a 64-57 win over Zion as Stevenson clinched the NSC Lake Division title for a fourth consecutive season.

"This is just a testament to what coach (Pat) Ambrose has instilled since day one," said Smith who led all scorers with 24 points. "It doesn't matter the amount of talent, or Division I players. We play hard and we play defense -- and defense wins championships."

When Smith was on the floor, the Zee-Bees really had no answer. After sitting all but :12 seconds of the second quarter, Smith exploded for 8 points in the third quarter as Stevenson (19-6, 9-2) went into the final period leading 48-44.

Zion-Benton regained the lead on a Kienan Baltimore's only 3-pointer of the night with 6:54 to play. Baltimore led Zion with 19 points. The next two-minute stretch belonged to Smith and the Patriots.

After his 2 free throws tied it, O'Connell found the high-flying Smith for the slam with 6:04 to play, giving Stevenson a 52-50 lead.

"At the beginning of the year I was tentative and wouldn't make that pass," O'Connell said. "I've seen him jump over people before, so I am confident that when I toss it up there he will go get it."

Even after the dunk, Stevenson still couldn't shake the pesky Zee-Bees.

"I thought we had a good game plan tonight and executed it well with low turnovers and good post play," said Zion-Benton coach Bob Worthington. "On that dunk, it was something we had talked about in practice all week and just a momentary lapse."

The teams were tied again at 52-52 before the Patriots went on a back-breaking run to seal it. Ryuji Aoki hit a corner 3 with 4:03 to go. Then Smith followed it with a perfect pass to Kevin Yang, who finished with a reverse layup that concluded an 11-4 burst.

Yang played huge minutes for Stevenson in the second quarter, when Smith was saddled with early foul trouble, and finished with 6 points and 2 blocks.

"I think it's important that we are building depth here in the next month and defining roles where guys are out and guys need to step in," Ambrose said. "I thought Kevin came in and gave us huge minutes tonight."

Yang, along with Jordan Newman and Eric Zalewski, played valuable minutes off the bench in place of injured senior Jack Sorenson. Sorenson injured his shoulder in practice earlier in the week but is hopeful to return in time for the state tournament.

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