Deerfield delivers against Stevenson
The pool of doubters may be shrinking.
Deerfield has been one of the best boys basketball teams in the suburbs all season, unofficially the first team in the Chicago area to reach the 20-win plateau.
But the Warriors have often thought that they were the only ones who truly believed in the Warriors.
"We kept hearing, 'Oh, they haven't played anyone,' or 'the record is a fluke,' and it's hard not to hear some of those things," Deerfield coach Dan McKendrick said. "But we just kept showing up and doing what we do and finding ways to win.
"Don't get me wrong, we've gotten a lot of very good press this season, but we definitely felt like we had been overlooked a little bit, too.
"People are noticing us now, though, and this really validates what we've been thinking about our team all along."
The "this" McKendrick is referring to is one of the biggest wins in recent Deerfield history.
The Warriors scratched and clawed and came from behind Wednesday night to take out Stevenson, the defending Class 4A state champion, 53-50 in the semifinals of the Glenbrook South sectional.
Deerfield, which improves to 28-3 and will be looking to go to its first supersectional since 1997, will take on No. 4 seed Notre Dame in the sectional final on Friday at Glenbrook South.
"It's just surreal, that's the only word to describe this," Deerfield senior forward Jordan Sherman said of eliminating Stevenson. "We just had to keep fighting back and it paid off.
"At the beginning of the season, we had no idea what to expect. We lost a lot of great seniors from last year. Most people thought we were going to turn out to be an average team. But we play so well together and since we got on a run early on, this is what we envisioned."
Deerfield, down by as many as 9 points early in the second half, got back into the game with a nagging full-court press that forced all kinds of Stevenson errors. The Patriots committed 9 of their 13 turnovers after halftime, mostly trying to crack the Warriors' scrambling run-and-jump traps.
Stevenson, which ends its season with a 24-7 record, clung to a 39-36 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, but Deerfield made its most decisive move by reeling off an 11-0 run over the first six minutes.
"We weren't quite ready (for the press)," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. "It got us uncomfortable. They took us out of our rhythm."
Deerfield closed out the fourth quarter by sinking 10-of-14 free throws. For the game, the Warriors hit 12-of-22 free throws while Stevenson had just 11 free throw attempts and hit five.
Sherman was 6-of-8 at the line for Deerfield in the fourth quarter. He finished with a team-high 14 points.
"This is tough. It's a punch in the gut any time you lose and we seemed to have (the win), so that's another reason it's so frustrating," Ambrose said. "But credit to (the Warriors). They didn't give up. And they made shots.
"Any time seniors lose, especially the guys who have been on the team the last couple years and have (experienced deep state tournament runs and a state championship), it's tough. They are struggling with it. There's a lot of raw emotion."
An emotional Ryuji Aoki, Stevenson's senior 3-point specialist, collapsed in a heart-wrenching heap on the floor as the game ended. He heaved a three-quarters court shot that looked perfectly on line and hit just off the back of the rim as the buzzer sounded. A make would have tied the game and forced overtime.
Aoki paced Stevenson with 14 points on four 3-pointers. Junior forward Justin Smith added 13 points and senior guard Jordan Newman finished with 11 points on two 3-pointers.
"We just worked too hard for this," a teary and choked up Aoki said. "It just didn't go our way. I thought that shot was going in. I always try to think every shot I take is going in. This is so hard right now."