Special setting for a special Stevenson win
It was finally Matthew Ambrose's turn.
He had been wanting to play in a varsity game in Waukegan's historic old gym for years.
He had certainly seen enough games there, up close and personal, from the bench.
Ambrose is the son of Stevenson head coach Pat Ambrose, and he spent much of his childhood watching Stevenson basketball games as the team's ball boy, including games in Waukegan's gym.
He saw the Patriots, led by Jalen Brunson, now a star at Villanova, win a sectional title at Waukegan the year they won the Class 4A state championship.
"It's a pretty special gym," the younger Ambrose said. "A lot of historic memories. I was here for some amazing games."
So it was surreal for Ambrose to be back inside Waukegan's gym on Saturday night, this time in uniform, this time taking shots himself.
Ambrose, just a sophomore, was playing in his first varsity game at Waukegan's old gym, and he led Stevenson to another of those very special victories.
The Patriots got out to a big lead and held off a surging Waukegan team with a late 3-pointer by Ambrose as well as free throws from Ambrose and three other players to get a 54-52 North Suburban Conference victory.
"I used to love hanging around the team when I was younger, and now our assistant coach's little son does the same thing and that reminds me of me," Ambrose said. "It is pretty cool to be playing here now. The atmosphere, the memories. I love it."
Ambrose scored a team-high 14 points, including two 3-pointers, to lead a total of four Stevenson players in double-figures.
"This was so special," Pat Ambrose said of sharing the experience of a game in the Waukegan gym with his son. "He's looked at this for a long time, 'I want to play in that gym. I want to play on Friday (and Saturday) nights, I want to take big shots and make big shots.' It's special for him because he's a real basketball junkie and he recognizes what the legacy and the importance of this gym is and he watched Jalen Brunson for four years here and all our other guys. It's special and surreal. Just six years ago he was this little guy I could carry around to these games and now he's here hitting shots."
The younger Ambrose and a bunch of his teammates came out hitting all kinds of shots in the first quarter, pushing Stevenson to an 18-6 first-quarter lead.
The Patriots (10-6, 4-2 NSC) were up by 8 points (28-20) at halftime but slowly saw their lead shrink as Waukegan began to play better in the second half.
Bryant Brown of Waukegan became a thorn in Stevenson's side as the game progressed, getting tougher and tougher to stop inside. He scored 21 of his game- and career-high 32 points after the break.
And he tied the game at 41-41 with 4:48 left to play on a strong move in the paint.
"We were just late picking it up," said Brown, who said that Waukegan's loss to Warren earlier this week was similar in that the Bulldogs also got down big early. "We had to pick up the intensity on offense. We needed to move more on offense. We had gotten some good looks, we just couldn't finish them."
Bryant Brown was the only player to score in double-figures for Waukegan. Jordan Brown had 8 points and Ja'Dyn Brown had 6 points.
Stevenson closed out the game by hitting 9-of-10 fourth quarter free throws, by Ambrose, Luke Cheing, Jackson Qualley, Nick Bonk and Samvit Ram.
Cheing finished with 11 points on three 3s, Qualley and Ram had 10 points and Bonk had 9 points.
"This was just the story of our season and our guys this year," Waukegan coach Ron Ashlaw said. "We come out with certain mindsets that are not helpful to the cause. And generally, we rally and we play hard but because of the deficit, any mistakes made late are so critical because there's so much less margin for error."