‘Russian Bear’ lifts Stevenson over Waukegan with pair of late 3-pointers

Waukegan guard Andre White Jr. (4) takes on Stevenson forward Matt Kaznikov (35) in Stevenson's 63-56 win on Friday night. Ben Pope/For the Sun-Times
Waukegan guard Andre White Jr. (4) takes on Stevenson forward Matt Kaznikov (35) in Stevenson's 63-56 win on Friday night. Ben Pope/For the Sun-Times

Matt Kaznikov swished a pair of go-ahead three-pointers in the final minutes to lift Stevenson to a dramatic 63-56 victory over No. 23 Waukegan on Friday in Lincolnshire.

Kaznikov, nicknamed the ‘Russian Bear’ by teammates because of his family’s heritage and slight accent, first gave the Patriots (13-3, 4-1 North Suburban) a 53-51 lead with 90 seconds left with a triple from the left corner, then answered two Waukegan free throws by putting Stevenson ahead for good with another trey from the right corner. The junior forward finished with a career-high 19 points.

“We had to get it into the middle, and once we got it into the middle, my teammates were able to find me and I was able to knock the shots down,” he said.

The visiting Bulldogs (13-4, 4-1) looked half-dead while falling behind 30-9 in the second quarter and 33-19 at halftime, but a hounding defense and some timely baskets from star Bryant Brown eventually helped them rally all the way back.

Brown tied the game at 40 apiece seconds into the fourth quarter, and a Jordan Brown layup briefly gave Waukegan the lead with 1:45 left, right before Kaznikov took over.

“We knew that in the third quarter, they were going to come back — they’re a good team, they go on their runs,” Kaznikov said. “We just held our composure down the stretch and that’s what led us to victory at the end.”

Leading scorer and coach’s son Matt Ambrose returned from an 11-game injury absence for the Spartans and immediately made his presence felt. He ultimately tallied 18 points and eight rebounds, shooting 4-of-11 from the floor but 7-of-7 from the free-throw line.

That was part of an excellent night at the charity stripe for Stevenson, which attempted just 43 total field goals to Waukegan’s 59, but went 17-for-20 collectively at the line. Kaznikov — even with a body built like a center — contributed his share of that, shooting 5-of-8 from the field and 6-of-6 from the line.

“He’s a good shooter, so we were not surprised by it, but of the two straight threes, the one in the corner where he stepped and shot it, that was a tough shot,” coach Pat Ambrose said. “They were wide-open, but that’s what Waukegan is going to give you, because they trap and then you’ve got to get out of the trap and hit the three.”

Waukegan’s trapping had, earlier on, sparked the comeback, leading to lots of mid-court turnovers and fast-break points the other direction. But it worked against them in the final moments.

“We just made some poor defensive decisions, I think that’s what it was — trapping and pressing up even though we had a lead,” Bryant Brown said. “And then on offense, we rushed it down the stretch.”

Bryant Brown led his team with 20 points and nine rebounds, but it took him 21 attempts to get there. Fellow senior Jaylin Cunningham added 10 points on 5-of-11 shooting, and Jordan Brown had nine points and eight boards. For Stevenson, in addition to Kaznikov and Ambrose’s big nights, R.J. Holmes totaled nine points and six rebounds and Luke Chieng chipped in another nine points, plus the game-winning assist.

Waukegan coach Ron Ashlaw held his team in the locker room for a loud and lengthy post-game conversation after the loss, needing a quick turnaround in morale before another difficult matchup Saturday against No. 10 St. Viator.

“We’ve had some slow starts this year, but that was by far the slowest one,” Ashlaw said. “It was an abandonment of all the things we’d talked about. We had a week to get ready for these guys and I thought we had a great game plan, but we came out in the first half and we decided — versus a team that’s going to pack the lane and not let you get penetration — we’re just going to try to beat guys one-on-one. … When we’re not as dimensional as we need to be, it’s a problem.”

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