Stevenson isn't a one-man team

Stevenson isn't a one-man team
March 14, 2013, 9:30 am
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So what is Stevenson doing in the semifinals of the Class 4A playoff?

With two sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup, the Patriots projected as a team to reckon with next year, right?

Obviously, rival coaches and the media thought so. Laden with inexperience, youth, lack of size and depth, Stevenson was picked to finish fourth in the North Suburban's Lake Division.

But here they are, 28-4 with an 18-game winning streak, poised to meet Edwardsville on Friday night in Peoria. Unbeaten since Christmas, the Patriots haven't allowed an opponent to come within six points.

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Curiously, coach Pat Ambrose admits he is "mildly surprised but not shocked" by his team's state tournament run. The Patriots were 10-4 after losing to highly rated Morgan Park and Oswego to finish fourth at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"Ten wins by Christmas was an indicator," Ambrose said. "This is one of the best teams I have had, like the 27-7 team that finished fourth in 2007. They have grown and matured. We start four guards. We shoot well and we handle the ball well. We spread the floor, share the ball, drive and shoot."

They executed to near perfection on Tuesday night, eliminating Rockford Boylan 73-67 in the supersectional at De Kalb. They converted 10-of-17 three-point shots in the first half. Connor Cashew scored 22 points and Jalen Brunson and Andy Stempel each contributed 18.

It demonstrated, contrary to popular perception, that Stevenson isn't a one-man team. Brunson, a 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard who is being acknowledged as the No. 1 player in the class of 2015 in Illinois, has attracted most of the attention from the media and opposing defenses.

In the fourth quarter, with Boylan trying to rally from behind, Brunson was forced to sit on the bench for three minutes with foul trouble. During that time, however, Cashaw, Stempel and Matt Morrissey picked up the slack.

"We know Jalen is our best player and the other kids play their roles," Ambrose said. "They step up and fill their roles. They do good things when they need to. They love Jalen and don't mind that he gets most of the publicity. He is our hardest worker. It is easy to have him get all the attention from the media. They believe in him and he believes in them."

Only 16, Brunson has emerged as one of the leading players in the state. He averages 20 points and five assists per game and already has received scholarship offers from Purdue, Xavier and SMU. Ambrose describes him as "an adult brain in a kid's body."

"What has amazed me is Jalen has dealt with everything with dignity and class, on and off the floor," Ambrose said. "He has persona and style. I don't worry about him losing his cool. He has a lot of poise. He understands the game at a very high level."

With Brunson, 6-foot-3 sophomore Cashew and 6-foot-3 junior Morrissey in the starting lineup and 6-foot-4 sophomore Parker Nichols coming off the bench, it would be easy to look ahead to 2013-14. But Ambrose said his players never gave it a second thought.

"We're ready to go now," the coach said. "These kids are battle tested. They want to do well this year. They aren't thinking about next year. They grew up fast. They worked hard in practice and didn't look at the negatives -- too short, too young. They just wanted to get the job done. Their poise told me that they could do it now. They don't get flustered. They don't get bothered by anything."

Cashew, who averages 15 points and eight rebounds per game, also has emerged as one of the leading sophomore prospects in the state. He leaped on everybody's radar screen with an outstanding performance at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"He a load, a great kid, tough-nosed, a scorer," Ambrose said. "He is so versatile. He can play point guard and is our best rebounder. I felt he would be a very good player but his development has sky-rocketed. Sometimes a sophomore can do only one thing but Connor can do so many things well."

Edwardsville (30-2) shapes up as Stevenson's toughest test to date. Ambrose described Morgan Park as "a virtual all-star team, very good at all positions, strong, smart, athletic. I can't imagine a better Class 3A team, as good as any team that I've seen in 14 years."

But Edwardsville presents a different problem. With no one taller than 6-foot-4, Ambrose said he worries about confronting a taller opponent.

"Someone we can't handle inside," he said.

Edwardsville has four 6-foot-5 starters -- Garret Covington, Armon Fletcher, Drew Curtis and Tre Harris. They overpowered Marian Catholic and its high-scoring 5-foot-7 point guard Tyler Ulis 68-49 in Tuesday night's supersectional at Illinois State. Harris likely will draw Brunson in coach Mike Waldo's 2-3 and 1-3-1 defenses.

"I haven't seen them play," Ambrose said. "We'll have to do the best we can. We outrebounded a bigger team in Boylan. We have to keep doing what we have been doing well -- get in everybody's face and pressure the ball and make sure we take away their strengths. We have great kids who can compete at a high level."