No denying Ambrose as Stevenson outlasts Zion-Benton
Denied the ball to the extent that he didn't even make a single field goal against Highland Park in Stevenson's regional final, Matthew Ambrose would not be thwarted again.
Teammate Matt Kaznikov could have predicted it.
"I've known the kid since we were freshmen," Kaznikov said of his fellow senior Ambrose. "We were on the same teams throughout four years. He started off a little bit slow in the playoffs, but he's a great shooter, fantastic scorer, good leader, and he's going to erupt at some point. He's not going to go down without a fight."
The eruption came Tuesday night.
While it helped that Zion-Benton played man-to-man defense and had no interest in playing slowed-down basketball in the Class 4A Prospect sectional semifinal, Ambrose was more than ready to make up for the mere 2 points he mustered against Highland Park's ball-press last Friday. The three-year varsity starter poured in a career-high 31 points and added 9 rebounds, as top-seeded Stevenson ousted No. 5 Zion-Benton 61-52.
It was the Patriots' third win in as many games over the Zee-Bees this season.
"We wanted to pressure him beyond the 3," Z-B coach Bob Worthington said of Ambrose. "But he shot even beyond that. So I give him credit. Senior kid. Knocked some shots down. I applaud him. I just wish he had [Zion-Benton] maroon on tonight."
With its 12th win in a row, Stevenson (28-4) advanced to Friday's 7 p.m. sectional final against No. 2 Mundelein (30-4), which held off No. 11 Prospect 46-42 in Tuesday's second semifinal.
Ambrose, who's played steadily better as the season has progressed after being slowed by a right-knee injury suffered in the fall, shot 9 of 12 from the floor, going 5 of 6 from the arc.
He also helped Stevenson dig itself out of an 11-2 hole by scoring 8 points (two 3-pointers), as the Patriots closed the first quarter with a 14-0 run. Ambrose had 21 points (1 off his season high) at halftime, and the Patriots led 32-26.
"He's had a tough season because of his knee," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said of his oldest son. "I'm not saying, 'Now he's great,' but I'm saying he's better than he was before."
Ambrose needed to be great because Zion-Benton junior guard Amar Augillard did everything he could to win the game for his team. Augillard scored 27 points (four 3s), going 11 of 28 from the floor. He sank turnaround jumpers, long 3s and soaring layups.
"That's a great team over there," Matthew Ambrose said. "Amar, man, he's a player. He can hit any shot in the half court. He's crazy."
Stevenson led 43-32 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter when Zion-Benton turned up its full-court pressure, and it flustered even an experienced team like the Patriots. When Augillard spun and swished a right-wing jumper early in the fourth, the Zee-Bees were within 44-43. Ambrose answered with a long 3. Then after Damontae Taylor swooped in for a dunk, Kaznikov responded by sinking a 3 to make it 50-45 with 3:19 left. Zion-Benton never got closer.
"We knew Zion really loves the transition game, up and down," Kaznikov said. "The key was to slow down their transition and their two best players. Amar and Damontae, you got to give them credit. They played one heck of a game."
"I felt we got extra possessions with turnovers that we were forcing with the press, but then there were some adjustments (Stevenson) made with slowing the game down," Worthington said. "We wanted to run. We wanted to push them back up and down the floor a little more than we did, especially in the second half. We made a good run."
Kayleb Naylor added 11 points and 8 rebounds for the Zee-Bees, while Taylor finished with 10 points.
Kaznikov and RJ Holmes (9 rebounds) each contributed 12 points for the Patriots, who scored in the 30s in both of their regional wins (over Lake Zurich and Highland Park).
"We put up points tonight, but our first two games [in the regional] we couldn't hit anything on our home floor," Matthew Ambrose said. "We always bring our defense in the playoffs. If we do that, we're going to be fine. We made (Zion-Benton) take some tough shots and make some tough shots, and credit to them. They did that."