Stevenson gets past Highland Park to earn title
Falling behind top-seeded host Stevenson had to be pretty demoralizing for No. 9 Highland Park Friday night in the championship game of the Class 4A Stevenson regional.
But rather than panic, the visiting Giants managed to stay within striking distance of the Patriots almost the entire way in a defensive struggle.
In the end, Stevenson got the job done down the stretch en route to a 37-31 victory and a trip to the Prospect sectional semifinals Tuesday night against No. 5 seed Zion-Benton, which defeated Libertyville in the Warren regional final.
A dunk by senior R.J. Holmes (10 points, 11 rebounds) and an outside jumper by senior teammate Matt Kaznikov (10 points) staked Stevenson (26-4) to an 11-0 lead with 1:12 left in the first quarter.
But Highland Park's Zach Fagenholz (15 points) hit the first of his five 3-pointers to finally break up the shutout with only 18 seconds left in the opening period.
Stevenson junior Evan Ambrose banked home a shot in the lane with just two seconds left in the first quarter to give the Pats the 13-3 lead. But after that the game was a dogfight as the Giants (19-11) outscored the Patriots 8-7 in both the second and third quarters to trail 27-19 after three quarters.
Then two more 3-pointers by Fagenholz to open the fourth quarter cut the lead to 27-25 with 6:48 to play as the home crowd started to get a little quiet with the lead shrinking quickly.
But Stevenson was not to be denied on this historic night when veteran coach Pat Ambrose would hit a milestone by recording his 450th career win in 21 seasons.
An outside shot by Kaznikov boosted the lead to 29-25 before senior teammate John Ittounas (7 points, 4 assists) hit a huge 3-pointer from the left wing to boost the lead to 32-25 with 5:06 to play.
"We did the right things, we made enough shots, and we shot a really high percentage inside," said Pat Ambrose, who now has a 450-170 career record. "We were ready defensively, and we hit some shots early on, but they chipped away."
Holmes scored on a drive down the right baseline to boost the lead to 34-25 with 1:27 remaining to help put away Highland Park, which was outrebounded 28-10 overall in the contest.
"Every possession matters. We were able to stick together on defense, and on offense we were really able to work it and pass the ball around," said Holmes, whose team won a sectional title last year over Waukegan. "Coach Ambrose has a history of winning for a long time, and tonight was special because I know him and his kids (Evan and senior guard Matt Ambrose) are really close."
Besides Fagenholz (5-for-8 from 3-point range), Billy Rudman hit double figures for the Giants with 11 points while teammate Val Oplchenski grabbed 7 rebounds.
"We just locked in on some of their players and I think they got a little tired," said Ambrose, who downplayed his 450th career win. "Twenty-one years is a long time, but I've had a lot of great kids, and it's fun to celebrate the win with this team."