A different hero every night. That's what coach Al Allen says it takes for the Oak Park and River Forrest boys' basketball team to thrive without injured guard Evan Hilton.
With the star guard still nursing a foot injury, a host of Huskie heroes came forward to don capes over the weekend to take pressure off everyday Superman Robert Strzemp. The result was a pair of wins.
Dwight James came forward with nine-first half points to help push OPRF to a 56-50 upset over Lyons Township (16-3, 7-1) that put the Huskies back in the West Suburban (Silver) conference race. Then on Saturday, Gabe Sims scored 14 to help the Huskies past Glenbard West (9-10, 1-7).
"To me, it's incredible that this team has done what it has without its best player," OPRF Allen said. "(Strzemp) continues to amaze me the way he plays. He's been our only consistent scorer, but he can't carry the whole burden by himself. When Evan went down, that was 20 points per game you have to replace. But if we get three guys that add seven points, that's it right there. These guys getting quality minutes while he's been gone are learning to do that."
The Huskies (11-8) went into Friday's game at LT three games behind the Lions, and also behind Downers Grove North and Hinsdale Central in the conference standings. The last time the two teams played, LT shut OPRF's offense down, limiting the Huskies to only 10 first-half points.
It was a different story in the opening minutes Friday, as the Huskies raced out to a 12-0 lead. The Lions took a timeout while still trailing by only nine, but James nailed a 3-pointer to cap the run and steal whatever momentum LT hoped to gain from the breather.
As for James, he scored eight of his nine points in the opening frame.
"That was phenomenal," Allen said. "The timeout didn't help them, and it was good that we took that lead.
"James gave us the spark to light the candle, then went out and played great defense the rest of the game."
The Lions (16-3, 7-1) came back to tie the game at 21 with two minutes left in the second quarter, but back-to-back 3-point baskets by Sims and Strzemp gave the Huskies a six-point lead at the break. OPRF led by eight after scoring the first points of the second half.
With the Huskies still in front 43-39 in the fourth quarter, the Lions had to put OPRF at the free-throw line in an attempt to mount a comeback. LT thought it had found an easy mark in Howard Boone, who had hit only 1-of-6 at the line and is a 29-percent free-throw shooter on the season.
But Boone nailed 3-of-4 in the fourth quarter, and the Huskies hit 12-of-15 down the stretch to seal the win.
Boone finished with 10 points, and Strzemp finished with a game-high 21 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Jason Pontone finished with only six points, but his clutch jump-shooting helped open the floor for Strzemp.
Friday's win vaulted OPRF past Downers North and Hinsdale Central in the WSC after both teams lost a pair over the weekend. The Huskies are still two games behind LT after splitting two with the Lions, so a repeat conference title is unlikely, but not impossible.
"We're just getting ready for the postseason by winning games," Allen said. "Winning, tying or finishing second in conference would be a byproduct of doing that, but right now our main focus is getting ready to go with Evan and getting ready for the playoffs."
OPRF did little to hurt that cause with a 57-51 win against Glenbard West on Saturday. Strzemp scored 22 in that game and Sims stepped up with 14 to lift the team past another defensive-minded team.
The Huskies have only a road game at York slated for this week. Hilton is expected to be back in the lineup after being reevaluated this week.