O'Connell's poise comes in handy as Stevenson wins Showdown
The poise surfaced again. It wasn't the first time, after all, that Aidan O'Connell protected a ball in a big moment with a defender's eyes glued on him.
So as Stevenson's basketball team clung to a 2-point lead over Morgan Park in the City-Suburban Showdown at Robert Morris University's Convocation Center in Arlington Heights, O'Connell, the football team's all-state quarterback, found himself with the ball near the circle. He waited ... waited ... and finally drove, faked a shot and banked in a 10-footer with 57 seconds left.
"Coach (Pat) Ambrose talks every day about going off two feet, pump-faking, secondary fakes," O'Connell said. "His words were in my head while I was playing the game."
Turns out, O'Connell and his teammates had to wait a little longer to celebrate victory Saturday night. Stevenson prevailed 60-58 in overtime, after Morgan Park freshman Nimari Burnett drained a 30-footer at the fourth-quarter buzzer.
"Next play," Stevenson forward Justin Smith said when asked his reaction to Burnett's big bucket.
Smith (15 points, 11 rebounds) and O'Connell (11 points, 12 rebounds) had double-doubles for Stevenson (20-5), which locked up its fifth 20-win season in a row. Double-doubles are nothing new for the Indiana-bound Smith, but the feat was a first this season for the Wheaton College-bound QB.
O'Connell's never-panic demeanor has been a key for the Patriots the last two seasons. He also had 4 assists and no turnovers.
"We put him at that spot (on the perimeter) for a reason," Ambrose said of his 6-foot-3 forward. "You see when Willie (Herenton) gets trapped a little bit he goes to Aidan. Aidan doesn't over-dribble. He stays very calm."
Herenton scored a game-high 18 points but was an uncharacteristic 6 of 12 from the foul line shooting in Robert Morris' spacious field house.
In OT, Herenton put the Patriots up 57-55 by flipping in a reverse, despite stumbling, and drawing a foul. He missed the free throw and two more foul tosses a minute later. Four nights earlier, he went 9 of 9 from the stripe against Lake Zurich.
"I usually hit those," Herenton said. "I was (upset) with myself, but I was tired at the same time. I just tried to will them in."
Jackson Qualley (11 points, 7 rebounds) showed poise by knocking down 2 free throws with 26.9 seconds left to stretch the Stevenson lead to 59-56. A pair of free throws by Ayo Dosunmu (team-high 13 points) got Morgan Park within 1, and after Smith could only split 2 free throws, the Mustangs had one last chance.
But Smith stole the inbounds pass under Stevenson's basket to secure the Patriots' win over the state's top-ranked team in Class 3A.
"After having lost (Friday at Waukegan), we really wanted to bounce back strong," said Smith, who also had 4 steals and 2 blocks. "We feel that we should have won (Friday). We had that feeling that we let one get away. After that first quarter (against Morgan Park), everybody was like, 'OK, we can play with them. So let's go.' That's what we did."
Stevenson led the entire first half and took a 31-23 advantage into the break, as Morgan Park (19-5) utilized eight players off the bench. The Mustangs play their fourth game in five days Sunday when they tip against Simeon in the Chicago Public League championship game.
"Good win for us," Ambrose said. "We played really hard (Friday) night in a conference game, as they did too. I'm really proud of the effort these guys made. They stuck with it. Morgan Park hit some incredible shots, and our guys stayed mentally tough."