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Stevenson topples Vernon Hills
By Joe Aguilar | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 1/12/2013 11:37 PM

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OK, Stevenson senior Justin Berkson does not have scholarship offers on the table from Purdue, Southern Methodist and Xavier.

Truth be told, however, Berkson does have plenty in common with sophomore teammate and fellow point guard Jalen Brunson.

Note their initials. Each “J.B.” has a two-syllable first name and two-syllable last name. Son of a gun, their last names end in “son,” too.

“We’re both team players,” said Berkson, who’s 5 feet 7 to Brunson’s listed 6-2. “We both want to win, and we get after each other in practice. We just want to make each other better to help our team.”

Each guy is doing a good job of that, apparently. Brunson started out red-hot Saturday night in the Patriots’ 73-55 win over host Vernon Hills in a North Suburban Conference crossover, before sitting out the entire second quarter with 2 fouls. With Brunson’s backup, Berkson, running the offense, Stevenson maintained its lead, before Brunson’s return helped the Patriots pull away.

Brunson finished a game-high 21 points, Andy Stempel added 19, Matt Morrissey had 13 and 3 steals, and Connor Cashaw contributed 11 points and 9 rebounds.

“At times, we looked good,” coach Pat Ambrose said after his Patriots won for the second time in as many nights to improve to 12-4. “At times, Vernon Hills looked good. They shoot well and they run nice stuff. At times, it frustrates us because what they do, they do well. They go to it and get some clean looks at 3s.”

Speaking of 3-pointers, Brunson buried three in the game’s first five minutes. He had 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting when he was whistled for an offensive foul with 2:11 left in the opening quarter, with Stevenson up 17-7. He went to the bench and didn’t return until the start of the second half.

With the Division I prospect out of the game, Vernon Hills (7-11) outscored Stevenson 14-11. Stephen Curry (20 points) sank a pullup 18-footer to bring the Cougars within 28-21 at the break.

“We talked about attacking Jalen and trying to get him in foul trouble,” Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. “Him having to sit out obviously helped us to stick around a little bit.”

Ambrose had all the confidence in the world in Berkson.

“Justin Berkson is a senior and a really nice player,” Ambrose said. “He’s been a point guard his whole life. (He and Brunson) go at each other in practice all the time. One makes the other better.”

Berkson had 3 steals and 2 assists in the second quarter.

“I just try to get everybody else involved and make the team better,” Berkson said. “Obviously I’m not going to score as much (as Brunson), but whenever anybody is in foul trouble, I’m going to come in and play defense, pick up the intensity and just keep the team going.”

Stevenson opened the second half with a 12-0 run, receiving a pair of 3s from Morrissey, one from Stempel and a three-point play from Brunson, whose ankle-busting crossover brought fans out of their seats.

When Cashaw fed Morrissey for a left-corner 3-pointer to end the third, Stevenson had a 56-33 cushion.

Brunson scored 7 points in the third and drained his fourth 3 in the final quarter.

Robby Nardini added 12 points for the Cougars, who lost their fourth in a row.

“Jalen kind of took over,” McCarty said of Brunson. “He does it not only with his shooting ability, but he makes other kids better. He gets the ball to those guys where they can catch it and score.”