Maybe it was a little luck. Maybe it was a small miracle. Maybe it was a strong-willed basketball team determined to fulfill a goal made at the beginning of the season that had seemed unattainable with the loss of one of its key starters.
The Huskies' 53-44 win over Proviso West and Lyons Township's nail-biting 50-47 loss to Downers Grove North on Friday night allowed the Huskies (6-3, 16-9), who were forced to play without star guard Evan Hilton for most of the season due to a broken foot, to take exclusive ownership of their second consecutive West Suburban (Silver) Conference title.
Hilton, who returned to the lineup less than two weeks ago, led OPRF with 16 points, while Robert Strzemp, the team's main scoring producer all year, shook off an ankle injury suffered the week prior to finish with a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds.
A few days prior to the final game of the season, OPRF head coach Al Allen anticipated being without Strzemp, maybe even for the start of the playoffs, but the senior made a speedy recovery.
"Thankfully, the swelling went down in his ankle and our trainer Mike Barnish did a fantastic job of getting him prepared," said Allen of Strzemp. "He did some running in the pool and iced the injury every hour up until game time."
Allen was so thankful to have Strzemp playing in Friday's game, he kept the senior in a little too long. Strzemp played most of the game, including much of the fourth quarter in foul trouble. He fouled out with 2:06 remaining in the game.
"I had a brain [malfunction]," said Allen of the error in judgment. "I should have had him on the bench."
Poor free throw shooting nearly cost the Huskies the game and sole ownership of the WSC title. OPRF missed 18 free throw attempts in all, with Hilton making just 7 of 16 for the game. Strzemp missed two from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter.
"The free throw shooting was a nightmare," said Allen. "We can't miss that many in the playoffs."
The Huskies held a loose four-point lead at halftime, before outscoring Proviso West 12-7 in the third quarter. But with tumultuous free throw shooting and Strzemp in foul trouble, OPRF had to battle in the fourth to keep its opponent at bay. Lamont Sanders, a sophomore who was called up to varsity five games prior to Friday's matchup, replaced Strzemp and scored a quick layup to help seal the victory.
Jason Simmons added nine points in the win for the Huskies, and Gabe Sims chipped in six.
Allen said he was pleased by his team's turnaround in the second half of the season that included going 6-0 in conference games.
"The team held it together when a lot of people had counted them out," he said. "I commend them on that."
Allen and the Huskies now turn their focus to the opening round of the Argo Regional tonight (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.) when they take on the Argonauts, a team they narrowly defeated 61-59 in overtime back in late November. A win will likely advance the eighth-seeded OPRF to a showdown with St. Joseph, a top-ranked team in the state with just one loss on the year.
"There will be no nights off in the playoffs this season," said Allen.
OPRF 9 3 16 9
Lyons 8 4 19 6
Proviso West 6 6 15 11
Downers North 6 6 10 16
York 5 7 15 11
Hinsdale Central 5 7 10 16
Glenbard West 3 9 12 13