Jalen Clanton embraces the spotlight.
Sam Johnson shrugs off the doubters.
Together they have the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball team on the doorstep of school history.
Johnson scored a team-high 24 points and seven rebounds and Clanton added 22 points and six assists as the top-seeded Bulldogs knocked off fifth-seeded Curie 83-73 in a Class 4A Morton Sectional semifinal Tuesday night.
RBHS (27-3) can win its first sectional title on Friday night. The Bulldogs face the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Morton and St. Ignatius.
“We’re not satisfied,” RBHS coach Tom McCloskey said. “It’s a chance to make school history. That’s the focus right now.”
Before the playoffs started, the conventional wisdom was focused on whether the Bulldogs deserved the No. 1 seed over such Chicago Public League powers as defending state champion Young and Curie.
But those teams are gone and the Bulldogs have proven their tremendous regular season, the best in school history, was not a fluke.
“We heard that we were the most vulnerable No. 1 seed, so every day in practice we just play hard and try to prove that we deserve to be the No. 1 seed,” Clanton said. “We want to be the first to [win a sectional]. That would be really big for the community and the school and especially the coaches. They deserve it.”
Clanton, a 6-0 sophomore, and fellow guard Daniko Jackson, a 5-9 junior, played with a maturity beyond their years in the crucible of their first sectional game.
Jackson took only two shots and scored five points, but added seven rebounds and seven assists, teaming with Clanton to break Curie’s full-court press with regularity. The Condors (19-7) were able to force only 11 turnovers.
“The seniors and Daniko take a lot of responsibility showing us younger guys what to do and telling us what to do in certain situations,” Clanton said. “When I don’t know what to do I go directly to Daniko.
“He tells me what to do and I do it. It always seems to work and it worked out today.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs never wilted under the pressure and were able to score in transition by being just as aggressive as the Condors. Clanton scored 13 points and sophomore Henry Trelenberg 11 of his 16 points in the seesaw first half that ended in a 38-38 tie.
“Jalen is a special kid,” McCloskey said. “He likes the big stage and lives for that.”
So did Clanton feel any nerves?
‘No, I don’t play basketball with pressure,” Clanton said. “I just go out there and play the best that I can every night.
“That’s my favorite part about basketball is just big games, big crowds, showing them what I can do.”
The Bulldogs surprised even McCloskey with what they could do, beating the Condors at their own run-and-gun game. This was the sixth time R-B has scored over 80 points.
“I always tell the kids that state tournament games are going to be lower scoring and that just wasn’t the case tonight,” McCloskey said. “I thought for the most part we handled the pressure well, passed through their press and we got some points off of it.”
Johnson, who was stymied in his attempts to get to the rim but sank four three-pointers, said the plan was simple.
“We basically just stuck to what we like to do, which is to get the ball and run up and down the floor,” Johnson said. “It was a high-scoring game so we had to run with them, battle them on the boards.”
The Condors won the battle of the boards but the Bulldogs overcame that by making 11-of-23 three-point attempts compared to Curie’s 8-for-33 showing. Johnson had eight points in the third quarter, sinking a pair of treys, one of which gave RBHS a 57-48 lead.
The 6-7 senior forward added eight more in the fourth quarter, including the first four points. His last basket, off a Clanton assist, gave RBHS a 75-66 cushion with 3:05 left.
“Everybody stepped up tonight,” McCloskey said. “Sam had some big stretches in the third quarter, played like a senior. We wanted the ball in Daniko’s hands a lot in the fourth quarter, and he came through huge for us.”
Curie played without junior guard Devin Gage, a Division I prospect, but got 36 points from 6-5 senior Joshua Stamps, who made 11-of-24 shots and was 8-for-10 from the line.
But Stamps was held scoreless in the final two minutes after Curie had pulled with 77-73. He missed his last four shots and two free throws, while Clanton scored on a layup and split a pair of free throws.
Johnson added two free throws and reserve guard Mike Berscheid another with 8.9 seconds left to finish the scoring.
Paul Sitkiewicz added nine points and four rebounds and Mark Smith had six points, four boards and three blocks for the Bulldogs, whose youth has helped, not hindered the team in crunch time.
“They’re young but they can hit big shots,” Johnson said of the underclass guards. “They can play with anybody.”