By Brad Spencer
UPDATE: The OPRF boys basketball game at Glenbard North scheduled for Tuesday night has been cancelled due to inclement weather. The game will be played Wednesday night, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. at Glenbard North.
Hitting the 20-win mark — which would be the team's second in a row — isn't out of the question for OPRF boys basketball this season, but it's not going to be an easy task either.
The third-seeded Huskies, who concluded the regular season last week with a 48-46 overtime loss to Downers Grove South in West Suburban Conference crossover action, first need to dispatch either North Lawndale or regional host Glenbard North on Feb. 26. If they manage that, they will likely face Morton in the Glenbard North Regional championship on Friday in Carol Stream (7:30 p.m.). A win over the sixth-seeded Mustangs would put the Huskies at 19 victories on the season, making March 6th's Schaumburg Sectional semifinal matchup — likely against familiar foe York — that much more crucial.
OPRF split two games against the Dukes during the regular season, with the latest being a 47-41 win just a few weeks ago. That victory helped OPRF secure a share of second place with York in the Silver Division as both teams finished 8-4. But York won't factor into OPRF head coach Matt Maloney's plans until after Friday.
"We are looking at the playoffs as a series of mini tournaments," he said as his team prepared for a stretch of four practices in five days last week before the start of the playoffs. "Our first tournament consists of two games that we must win to continue our season. If we play up to our potential, we could repeat as regional champions, but our draw is one of the more difficult ones in the sectional and others in the area."
A key part to OPRF prolonging their season is the play of Alex Gustafson and the Huskies' big men in Virgil Allen, TK Mattox and Thomas Ross. Gustafson, mostly known for his smothering defense this season, will need to contribute on both sides of the court if the Huskies have a shot at slipping past the Dukes again. In the last meeting of the two teams, the senior scored 13 points, while holding York's best player, Colorado State-bound David Cohn, to just eight on the night.
"We need his production to continue if we want to advance," said Maloney of Gustafson, who is considered the team's unselfish work-horse. "His ability to stretch the defense is crucial for other players to continue to slash and to spread the defense."
For Allen, Mattox and Ross, who all tower at or above 6-foot-7, the time is now to shine. The seniors have helped provide shot opportunities for junior Erick Locke (17 points per game), OPRF's most potent scorer all season. At times, they've even provided their own highlights. During the regular season, the trio combined for 74 blocks and the bespectacled Allen racked up 13 points and 10 rebounds in the loss to Downers South just last week. Such a contribution is critical in the playoffs, especially in a sectional that appears up for grabs, at least until the title game (March 8) where top seed Proviso East (23-3) is likely to be waiting.