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For one half Tuesday night, Stevenson’s march to Peoria and a second consecutive trip to the 4A state finals looked anything but a sure thing.
Facing a Rockford Auburn team that defended with a ferocity that matched its opponent, the Patriots were locked in a 22-22 stalemate at the break. But once the third quarter began, Stevenson played like the team more determined to continue its season, and behind a 20-11 scoring burst, defeated the Knights 63-49 to win the DeKalb 4A supersectional and advance to state final four.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s an awesome day,” junior guard Connor Cashaw said.
In the second quarter, Cashaw was sent to the bench with two fouls. Stevenson was struggling against the Knights pressure defense and trailed 17-13 with 3:59 left in the half. Junior point guard Jalen Brunson then did what superstars do--he carried his team on his back. He scored all 13 of his team’s points in the quarter, mostly on drives to the basket, consistently knifing his way around multiple Knights defenders.
“They like to pressure and it created more space on the floor,” Brunson said, who finished with 35 points on 13-of-24 shooting. “I just at the right time tried to attack and was lucky enough to be able to finish.”
Stevenson effectively won the game in the first three minutes of the second half. Four Knights turnovers were the catalyst for a 12-2 Stevenson run. Junior guard Matt Johnson’s three-point shot with 4:42 left in the quarter gave the Patriots a 34-24 lead. After a first half that saw Cashaw and Johnson shoot a combined 1-of-9 from the floor, the two combined for 10 in the third quarter as the Patriots were not as reliant on Brunson.
In the fourth quarter, Rockford Auburn got as close as six after a Laytwan Porter lay up made it 50-44 with 4:30 left. But baskets by Cashaw (nine points, five rebounds) and Brunson brought the deficit back up to 10 and the Knights never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
Friday, Stevenson will play Young and Jahlil Okafor in the first semifinal game in Peoria. It’s a dream match up for basketball fans, and for the Patriots, their third state tournament game in two years.
“Getting downstate is quite an accomplishment. There’s been no surprises this year. We’ve circled this throughout the year that this is what we want to do,” Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. “They did it. Hats off to (them).”