Stevenson heats up, denies Highland Park's upset bid
Stevenson's boys basketball team may not have gotten the rematch it anticipated, or wanted.
Highland Park did.
And for a quarter and a half Tuesday night at Lake Forest, the 17th-seeded Giants looked like they might shock the top seed in the Class 4A Waukegan sectional complex. They frustrated Stevenson with their active 1-2-2 zone and held the lead, before the Patriots heated up from beyond the arc en route to a 49-37 win in the regional semifinal.
Stevenson (24-5), which advances to Friday's 7 p.m. championship game against the winner of Wednesday night's game between No. 8 Libertyville and No. 9 Hersey, routed Highland Park 47-17 at Fremd on Feb. 9. The Giants played that game without starting point guard Zach Fagenholz.
Patriots guard Luke Chieng assured he and his teammates did not take the Giants lightly.
"We knew they were a better than what we saw at Fremd," Chieng said after scoring 15 points on five 3-pointers to tie Matthew Ambrose (four 3s) for team-high scoring honors. "They were missing one of their better players, and they've been hot at the end of the season. They beat Deerfield, and they were shooting really well (Monday night in the play-in game against Lake Forest). So we knew they were going to be a strong shooting team, and we came prepared for that."
Highland Park's victory on Monday night denied Stevenson the opportunity to avenge its end-of-the-regular-season loss to No. 15 Lake Forest. The defeat meant Stevenson had to share the North Suburban Conference championship with Waukegan.
"For us, it just a situation of focusing on ourselves for a couple of days," said coach Pat Ambrose, whose Patriots closed out the regular season with losses to Benet Academy and Lake Forest for their only two-game losing streak of the season. "It wasn't redemption. We didn't care who we played."
Highland Park (13-17) played like a pressure-free team early on against Stevenson. Fagenholz's second 3-pointer of the second quarter had the Giants up 19-18, but Chieng answered with his third 3 of the quarter with 3:36 left, starting a 12-0 run for the Patriots. Stevenson made 6 of 8 shots from beyond the arc in the quarter and led 30-21 at halftime.
"The story of our season has been we make a couple of shots and we get hyped," Chieng said. "We feed off our bench's energy. We build our confidence and make a lot of 3s."
Pat Ambrose used the word "amoeba" to describe Highland Park's zone, which limited the Patriots to 3-of-9 shooting in the opening quarter.
"We try to adjust it based on who we're playing," Highland Park coach Paul Harris said. "Stevenson poses a lot of problems with multiple shooters and an inside presence. I thought early on we did a nice job, but their ball movement got so good. They got us chasing, and it made longer closeouts for our defenders. It gave their three-point shooters some good looks, and they knocked them knocked them down. You got to give them credit for knocking them down under pressure."
Chieng and Matthew Ambrose each hit two 3-pointers in the third quarter in helping Stevenson extend its lead to 47-28 entering the fourth. Stevenson made 12 3s through three and then scored just 2 points -- on a two-handed dunk by E.J. Alexis -- in the fourth.
Playing his first varsity game since being sent down to the sophomore team early in the season, Stevenson sophomore guard Trey Baker sank two 3-pointers, including one in the Patriots' big second quarter, in as many attempts.
"He's a part of our program as much as anyone is," Chieng said. "It's just awesome to see a guy, a younger guy especially, hit those 3s in a big game and see him develop like that."
Matt Kaznikov added 6 points and 8 rebounds for Stevenson, and R.J. Holmes had 5 rebounds and 4 blocks.
Andrew Natinsky led Highland Park with 12 points, and Fagenholz had eight.
"They're a better team than when we played them before, and Paul does a great job," Pat Ambrose said. "That zone is a little tricky. We don't see it, and we didn't have time to practice against it."