If hustle, heart and team harmony were the criteria for advancing through the Class AA playoffs, the Oak Park and River Forest boys basketball team might be a good bet to make a run at the state title.

Unfortunately, the Huskies’ dream transformed from March Madness to a rather maddening rash of turnovers and a lack of rebounding in falling to Proviso West 64-58 Friday night in Hillside at the Proviso West Regional final.

OPRF coach Al Allen offered no excuses for the loss, but he felt the Huskies certainly missed their best player 6-foot-3 swingman Iman Shumpert (out with left elbow injury).

“We didn’t handle the ball as well as normally as we do,” Allen said. “A lot of those turnovers should have not happened.”

The Panthers (21-6), who lost to OPRF twice during the regular season, set the tone immediately with a 5-0 spurt to open the game-including a break away dunk by Nigel Jackson (12 points). Proviso West, which forced the Huskies into an uncharacteristically high number of turnovers (15), added a 14-0 run during the last four minutes of the first quarter to build a 21-9 lead.

Don Gavin (16 points) led the Panthers’ balanced attack which placed four players in double figures.

“We knew that it would be hard for any team to beat us three times [in one season],” Proviso West guard Justin Hightower said. “This was our last game in our building so we were very hungry for a win.”

During a wild fourth quarter, the Huskies chipped away at the Proviso West lead behind the play of Phil Gary (17 points), Daniel Barnes (12 points) and Lamont Sanders. A three-pointer by Gary closed the gap to within six at 57-51 before a series of pushes, shoves and heated words were exchanged between the familiar foes. After one player was ejected and two more were assessed technical fouls, order was restored with 1:22 left in the game.

“I was disappointed because all these kids are really good friends and we almost got into a brawl,” Allen said. “We should have known better and been more responsible.”

Trailing 59-55, the Huskies appeared to have one final shot at victory with 1:03 remaining when Barnes stole the ball from Jackson. Barnes drove to the basket hard, but Jackson made a spectacular block which sparked the Panthers to hold on for the win.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, the Huskies (23-6) enjoyed a magical season highlighted by a West Suburban (Silver) Conference title, a Top 20 ranking in both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, and an unmistakable unity that secured this team’s place in OPRF basketball lore.

“We all love each other,” said Sanders, who tallied 14 points in his final game. “We’re a family. From the first guy to the last guy, nobody talked down about another guy.”

Allen offered praise about the Huskies’ special season as well.

“Without having a true center, I think this season has been the greatest accomplishment of any team I’ve ever had,” Allen said. “This group allowed the least amount of points and committed the fewest amount of turnovers of any team I’ve ever coached. They really had a tremendous season.”

While the Huskies lose an outstanding senior class led by Gary, plenty of talent returns next season. Shumpert, a Chicago Sun-Times All-Area selection who averaged 17 points a game, Chicago Sun-Times All-Area Special Mention player Daniel Barnes and Adam Taylor will lead OPRF, a probable preseason favorite to repeat as conference champs.

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...