Valiant effort by OPRF falls just inches short

? Huskies, finally at full strength, take top team down to wire.

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SUMMIT?#34;Having defied the odds time and again during a regular season in which they lost one of their best players due to an injury and navigated through one of the toughest schedules in the state, it was nothing new for the Oak Park and River Forest boys' basketball team to find itself in a tough spot in Friday night's Class AA Argo Regional championship.

The Huskies once again showed their mettle by nearly shocking a St. Joseph team currently ranked No. 2 in the area, falling to the Chargers 59-58.

Senior Robert Strzemp hit a 3-pointer to pull OPRF to within one with four seconds left, but St. Joseph was able to run out the clock and avoid the upset.

"It was the first time all season we had our top seven players relatively healthy and playing together, and we took one of the top teams in the state down to the last seconds," said OPRF head coach Al Allen. "Imagine what they could have done if they had been together all year."

OPRF lost senior guard Evan Hilton for three months when he broke his foot in the third game of the season. Strzemp then injured his ankle two weeks ago but managed to play through the pain. Allen said that Hilton was still rusty, although he scored 18 points in the Huskies' 78-58 win in the regional semifinal against Argo last Wednesday. He guessed that Strzemp was playing at about 85 percent. Even with the injury, Strzemp finished his high school career with a game-high 26 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter.

"He's a man," Allen said of the co-captain. "He's a self-made ballplayer. He was an average ballplayer his freshman year but he decided he wanted to be good and he worked and worked and worked."

The Huskies (17-10) fell behind by 14 in the second quarter and trailed 36-24 at halftime. But they scored the first six points of the third quarter and outscored St. Joseph 18-6 in the period to pull even at 42-42 entering the fourth quarter.

With Strzemp scoring five points in the first minute of the fourth, OPRF built a 47-43 lead and held it until the three-minute mark, when the Chargers' star guard, Iowa-bound Tony Freeman, drained a three to tie the score at 53-53.

Poor free-throw shooting hurt the Huskies down the stretch, as Hilton and Strzemp each missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity.

"But you can't really hold one missed free throw against a guy when he played his heart out and scored 26 points for you," Allen said, referring to Strzemp.

Down four points in the final seconds, Strzemp's three pulled the Huskies to within one. A quick foul sent St. Joseph's Alex Washington to the line and he missed both free throws, but the rebound went out of bounds with two seconds remaining, last touched by the Huskies. St. Joseph (27-1) was able to inbound cleanly and run out the clock, setting up a meeting with Fenwick at Morton last night (after deadline).

With the loss to the No. 2 Chargers, five of OPRF's 10 defeats this season came to teams currently ranked in the Top 25 by the Sun-Times. The others were Proviso East (No. 10), Warren (No. 17), West Aurora (No. 18), and Thornridge (No. 25). Despite the difficult schedule, the Huskies were seeded eighth in the Morton Sectional, largely because they had lost five in a row right before the seeding meeting and had an 8-8 record at the time. After the losing streak, OPRF closed the regular season by winning eight of its last nine, securing a second straight West Suburban Conference (Silver) title.

Had it not been for the injury to Hilton the Huskies probably would have earned one of the top four seeds in the sectional, St. Joseph head coach Gene Pingatore said after the game.

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