Stevenson's O'Connell-to-Smith combo is catching on

 
By Jeff Newton
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 12/3/2016 8:17 PM
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Stevenson senior Aidan O'Connell has made his name as a guy who can really throw the ball. That rep earned him a spot on the Daily Herald's Lake County all-area football team after he led the Patriots to a successful season.

On the basketball court, O'Connell has the same ability to throw the ball in the air, along with skilled teammates to go and get it.

But fellow senior Justin Smith just wasn't willing to take his considerable talents to the football field.

"I tried to talk him into it," O'Connell said. "It would have been great to have him out for football."

Smith and O'Connell will just have to settle for basketball for now. And their pitch-and-catch combination led to one highlight reel moment that no one in the crowd at Stevenson will soon forget.

In the North Suburban Conference opener for the Patriots against visiting Zion-Benton on Saturday night, O'Connell started the Stevenson fast break. He floated the ball near the basket, and out of nowhere the Indiana-bound Smith snared the ball out of the air and threw it through the hoop in a thunderous dunk.

"I trust myself and I trust Aidan, and he said he kind of threw it up there to make it look better," Smith said with a laugh. "I was actually kind of surprised I got to it there in the end and made it."

The rim-rattler brought the crowd in both stands to its feet. When Smith was done with his night, he'd accounted for 3 dunks, a season-best 30 points and most importantly, a 71-55 Patriots win over Zion-Benton.

"I was just afraid he was going to hit his head on the rim," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. "There's a reason why we call plays like that to get things done but (Justin) is ridiculous like that."

Stevenson (5-0) needed every bit of the performance from Smith. His 14-point outburst turned a 27-24 Patriots lead at halftime into a 51-38 advantage after three quarters.

"At halftime we talked about better ball movement, and for me if teams are going to box-and-one me, then I have to do a better job at setting screens and helping my teammates," Smith said.

Smith had help in the scoring column as senior Willie Herenton rattled in 23 points, including 10 in the first half when the offensive rhythm wasn't what it was in the second half. The Zion defense had a lot to do with that.

"I think we did a good job of mixing up our defenses a little bit there in the first half," said Zion coach Bob Worthington. "When you get down a 4 or 5 points, you can't switch as much and Stevenson did a good job of taking advantage of that."

The hosts opened the final quarter with an 8-0 run that extended the lead to 64-47 with 3:50 left.

Zion-Benton (1-1, 0-1) was paced by senior Damarquis Henry with 17 points. Rod Henry-Hayes and Jaalen Ray each tallied 14 for the Zee-Bees.

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