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Team chemistry carries Stevenson to Proviso West title

Stevenson’s five starters gather together before the tip, before the second half and at most breaks in the action. That’s pretty normal behavior for a high school basketball team. But normal high school teams don’t stand quite so close together. The circle usually doesn’t look so intimate.

“On and off the court, we are very close,” said Stevenson’s Connor Cashaw. “The bond is real, we’ve had it since eighth grade. We’re a band of brothers.”

The Patriots faced their stiffest challenge of the season Saturday and passed with flying colors, beating St. Joseph 69-60 in the Proviso West Holiday Tournament title game in Hillside.

It’s the second consecutive Proviso West championship for Stevenson. Just like last year, a talented, senior-laden team attempted to get physical with the Patriots. There were a few technical fouls dished out and a couple scuffles. That’s when Stevenson’s closeness seems to matter most.

“The trust is there,” said Cashaw. “Teams try to challenge you in different ways. We each trust one another.”

St. Joseph played nearly flawlessly in the first half and still trailed 34-31 at the break. Stevenson took control with a barrage of four three-pointers in the third quarter and then superstar guard Jalen Brunson drove them home.

Brunson was unstoppable, scoring 27 points on 11 for 18 shooting. He dished out six assists and had three steals.

“I just tried to make the right play at the right time,” said Brunson.

Cashaw added 18 points and nine rebounds and sophomore Justin Smith scored 16.

St. Joseph center Nick Rakocevic dominated the boards, finishing with 18. He scored 13 in the first quarter but managed just four points the rest of the way.

“We started sending two guys at him,” said Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose. “But (St. Joseph) started standing around and not getting him the ball too much. He’s a full of energy, spit and vinegar.”

Jordan Ash scored 17 for St. Joseph (11-2) and Joffrey Brown added 10. Nebraska recruit Glynn Watson scored just six but dished out five assists. He wasn’t as aggressive as usual.

“He’s a great player,” said Brunson. “I didn’t think he was passive, he’s just a point guard. He’s looking to distribute the ball.”

Stevenson (11-0) didn’t manage a single point off the bench, which was about the only flaw Ambrose could find with his team. The Patriots have clearly demonstrated they are the area’s top team and are the top contenders to win the Class 4A state title.

“We need to develop some depth and maybe hold on to the ball a bit better,” said Ambrose. “But we know who we are.”