For the second straight season, the Fenwick high school boys basketball team owns Oak Park.
A spirited second-half push coupled with stifling defense the entire game triggered the Friars' 51-40 win over visiting Oak Park and River Forest on Saturday. Playing in front a packed gym of fans, which offered ample and highly vocal support for both teams, the Friars (8-2) outscored the Huskies 38-25 in the second half to gradually pull away for the hard-earned victory in the teams' annual cross-town clash. Last season, Fenwick edged OPRF 66-57 at the Huskies' cavernous field house.
While points proved hard to come by the entire game in this year's nonconference meeting, a few key scoring spurts occurred for both teams during the game. After OPRF went on a 7-0 spurt capped off a lay up from forward Simmie Cobbs to lead 29-27 in the third quarter, the Friars responded with a decisive 13-0 run, which essentially put the game away. The Friars' scintillating spurt included a rim-rocking two-handed dunk by 6-foot-5 inch Tom Planek which sent Fenwick fans into a frenzy.
"We played a little tentative in the first two quarters but our crowd really helped us get into it," Fenwick sophomore guard Mike Smith said. "Coach [Rick] Malnati really challenged us at halftime to come out and play well in the second half."
Smith led the Friars with a game-high 19 points, while Planek recorded a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds. Keshaun Smith contributed nine points and four boards for Fenwick.
Cobbs, who has committed to play football at Purdue, led the Huskies with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Senior guard Jason Gant contributed 12 points, five steals and two assists. Establishing a post presence for OPRF against the Friars' solid "bigs", Javonni Harrell tallied four points, five rebounds and four blocks.
Trailing by as much as 15 points in the fourth quarter, OPRF (7-2) battled till the end including a 6-2 mini-run in the closing minutes.
"I was glad that even at the end, our guys still stuck together," OPRF coach Matt Maloney said. "There was a lot of adversity in many ways, and we just had to be 10 points better. It's one of those [situations] where you have to realize that mental energy is just as important as physical energy."
Fenwick certainly displayed enough of both to notch a pair of solid victories over the weekend. Prior to their showdown with OPRF, the Friars defeated host Provident 54-45 in a Chicago Catholic League matchup. Planek scored 20 points and Dwyer netted 14 points for the victors, while Jack Brody led the Celtics with 14 points. Defeating the Friars at full strength would have been tough enough, but the Celtics played short-handed without the services of 6-foot-6 junior forward Miles Boykin and Nick DiNardi.
From their perspective, the Friars overcame the challenge of two straight games against worthy opponents this weekend.
"It's challenging sometimes going from one game right into another," Mike Smith said. "It's tough especially against a top team like [OPRF], but we did a great job."
Overall, the surging Friars have five games in a row. In more Fenwick good news, senior star forward Scott Lindsey is expected to the return to the lineup sometime in January. Lindsey, a silky smooth and versatile swingman, officially signed with Northwestern earlier this year.
While Fenwick has several capable scorers, defense has quickly surfaced as the team's calling card for victories. Planek, in particular, turned in a stellar defensive performance chasing around the uber-athletic and competitive Cobbs.
"We had Planek guarding [Cobbs] on the perimeter, and he just did a great job," Malnati said. "He's really been a warrior for us all season."
Late in the second half, the tone of game turned chippy after OPRF senior guard Erick Locke was called for an intentional foul on the Friars' 6-foot-8 Dan Dwyer's breakaway lay up attempt. The play capped off a frustrating night for Locke, who finished 1 of 11 from the floor with six turnovers. Locke, one of the premier point guards in the area and the Huskies' catalyst, simply had an off night on a big occasion.
Thirty seconds after the call on Locke, Maloney was issued a technical foul. The game became so impassioned down the stretch even Santa Claus got into the act. Towards the end of the game, as OPRF and Fenwick cheerleaders were "battling" on the court during a timeout, a Santa supporter of Fenwick basketball took the floor to perform a series of spontaneous cartwheels. Apparently, The Friars' festive night even yielded a slight edge regarding which cheer squad got served.
The first half was decidedly less exciting as the intense finish with the Friars holding a 10-9 edge after one quarter. In a lackluster second quarter, the Huskies held Fenwick to just three points en route to taking 15-13 halftime advantage on the road.
After a 6-0 start to the season, OPRF has hit a mild skip losing two of its last three games. Granted, the setbacks were against highly-regarded Hinsdale Central and the Friars.
The Huskies will take part in the prestigious Pontiac Holiday Tournament (Dec. 26-28), also featuring Chicago Public League powerhouse squads Curie and Simeon, seeded No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. The Huskies earned a very impressive No. 3 seed and West Aurorais the fourth seed behind the Condors and Wolverines. OPRF opens against Lockport (and if form holds) would clash with Class 4A four-time defending state champion Simeon in the semifinals.
Meanwhile, Fenwick will participate in another classic Christmas tourney, the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. This year, the tournament features outstanding teams like the Friars, Proviso East, Bogan, Benet, St. Joseph, Morgan Park, New Trier, Stevenson and Hinsdale Central.
Fenwick opens the tourney against Von Steuben Thursday at 5:15 p.m. (Dec. 26).
-Marty Farmer contributed to this story.