Rich Central, Kenwood, Brother Rice, Oak Park and River Forest and tournament host Riverside-Brookfield comprised the talented field of teams competing in the 11th annual Bill VandeMerkt Boys' Basketball Tournament during Thanksgiving week. Perhaps predictably considering their respective hoops pedigrees, OPRF and RBHS squared off in Saturday night's tournament finale with the coveted title on the line.
OPRF emerged with an 84-71 victory over the host Bulldogs. The Huskies' high-powered offense produced an 11-0 run in the second quarter, as senior guard Ryland Watts made consecutive baskets followed by a three-pointer from senior guard Erick Locke. Senior forward Simmie Cobbs capped off the scintillating spurt with a one-handed dunk to give the Huskies a commanding 21-point lead with 4:22 left in the first half. OPRF led 24-12 after one quarter and 45-31 at halftime.
"The [Riverside-Brookfield] defense was really helping hard in the first half, so I was able to set my teammates up and get the ball to them," Locke said. "Later in the third quarter, they started to not leave their help, and then I was able to take guys one-on-one and get to the line."
Locke, the tournament MVP, powered the Huskies to the title with a game-high 31 points, seven assists and six steals against RBHS. Cobbs, a Purdue football recruit, added 23 points, five rebounds, three assists and six steals. OPRF senior forward Jawaan Jackson chipped in five rebounds.
The Huskies' pressure defense accentuated by their length and athleticism troubled the Bulldogs all night.
"We turned the ball over too much," RBHS guard Will Kincanon said. "Oak Park is very quick and athletic. They're probably one of the better teams in the state, so the turnovers cost us. If we didn't turn the ball over it would have been a very different game."
Kincanon paced the Bulldogs with 27 points, while senior forward Jack VandeMerkt scored 15 points and hauled down seven boards.
"I was trying to ease into the game in the first half," Kincanon said. "In the second half, we were struggling offensively so I tried to take it into my own hands and get to the basket."
Paul Sitkiewicz (11 points, seven rebounds) and Daniko Jackson (10 points, six assists, four rebounds) also contributed for the Bulldogs.
RBHS (2-2) entered the showdown against OPRF with a couple of significant tournaments wins already in the books. The Bulldogs came back from a 10-point deficit with 3:20 remaining in the game to edge Brother Rice 69-66 on Nov. 22, and they also notched an impressive 80-76 victory against Kenwood.
"Will and Jack both had a great tournament," RBHS coach Tom McCloskey said. "I set it up to make sure that we played a lot of tough teams to get us battle-tested for when we start conference play, and I think we did well."
The Huskies (4-0) dominated the competition the entire tournament, claiming lopsided wins over Brother Rice by 20 points, Rich Central by 27 points and Kenwood by 30 points en route to the championship. Locke credited the team's stellar and timely free-throw shooting as a primary reason for success. The Huskies made 21 of 30 free throws against RBHS.
"We shot great from the line as a team throughout the whole tournament," Locke said. "I think that had a lot to do with our success, especially lengthening our leads at the end of games when teams are trying to come back against us."
OPRF hosts Hinsdale South in a West Suburban Conference crossover on Saturday (6 p.m.). RBHS opens Metro Suburban Conference play against Fenton on Friday before hosting rival Lyons Township Saturday at 6 p.m.
Last season, the Huskies went 20-10 (their fourth 20-win season over the past five years) and enjoyed their deepest postseason run since 1976 with a sectional final appearance. The Bulldogs finished 21-7 and claimed their 12th straight conference championship.
"I'm glad we played in the VandeMerkt Tournament because it provided us an opportunity to play multiple teams with different styles of play," OPRF coach Matt Maloney said. "This tournament helps prepare us for conference."