To say the Oak Park and River Forest High School boys basketball team has a tough schedule this season would be an understatement. Off to a 5-4 start, the Huskies’ losses have been to Riverside-Brookfield, Fenwick, Lyons Township and Hinsdale Central. Those teams have a combined 33-6record.
“Sometimes I look at the schedule and wonder what the heck I was thinking,” OPRF coach Matt Maloney said during the preseason. “You have to play the best competition though to test yourself as a basketball team.”
Mission accomplished in that regard for the battle-tested Huskies. The schedule could become even more daunting, depending on how far OPRF advances at the 84th Pontiac Holiday Tournament (Dec. 29-31). The prestigious tournament features a loaded field of teams, including Chicago Public League powerhouses Simeon and Curie.
Last year, OPRF won three of four games at Pontiac to finish third. Simeon edged the Huskies 48-47 in the final day of action. OPRF bounced back to beat West Aurora 75-72 in the third-place game, while Curie slipped past Simeon 62-59 to win the title.
Regardless of results, Maloney believes the benefits of competing in Pontiac, about 100 miles south of Chicago along Interstate 55, will help his team’s development.
“The way the tournament is run and the high level of competition are both the best,” Maloney said. “The town and the people are so welcoming. For our kids, it’s really great to be treated so well. It’s the best team-building experience of the year.
“Pontiac is the best tournament in the state of Illinois. I would make that argument against anyone.”
Huskies fall to Red Devils, Lions
Over the weekend, Hinsdale Central (7-1, 3-0) and Lyons Township (8-2, 3-0) each earned a conference victory over host OPRF.
Hinsdale Central, the defending champion of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division, cruised past the Huskies, 75-62, on Saturday. Dallis Flowers and Connor Fuller scored 17 points apiece and Breshawn Wilkerson added 10 points for OPRF, which struggled against the Red Devils’ highly-touted frontline featuring 6-8 Matt Rafferty (22 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks) and 6-7 George Kiernan (16 points).
Friday’s game against Lyons Township actually started off in auspicious fashion for the Huskies when Elliot Greffin and Flowers each made a three-point shot to take a 6-0 lead at 6:48 of the first quarter.
The Lions dominated the rest of the first half, however, outscoring OPRF 24-7 to take a 24-13 halftime lead. Lyons Township owned a 16-2 scoring edge in the second quarter en route to a 60-51 win.
“In three of our losses, it’s been a tale of two games,” Maloney said. “We’ve had one really bad quarter in each game. It was the second quarter [against Lyons].
“Their press is designed just to slow you up and get out of your rhythm. In the first half, I thought we played right into their hands with their press and turned the ball over 10 times.”
Lyons Township senior guard Harrison Niego scored 14 of his game-high 21 points and his younger brother, promising 6-8 sophomore forward Connor Niego, contributed eight of his 14 points in the first half.
“We’re playing really well as a team,” Harrison Niego said. “The ball is moving and everybody is playing their role extremely well. When we play five guys as one unit, we’re tough to beat.”
The Niego brothers’ cousin, Noah Niego, is a 6-4 sophomore who sees plenty of playing time for the Lions as well.
The Huskies struggled initially against the Lions’ press and 2-3 zone defense. OPRF performed much better in the second half, scoring 38 of their 51 points.
“In the second half, we started attacking their press and we also started getting into the teeth of their zone defense,” Maloney said. “I was proud that we fought back. The guys showed a lot of spirit and character. We made a run in the fourth [quarter], but we never could quite get it below six points.”
Although the Lions maintained their halftime advantage, holding a 39-26 at the end of the third quarter, the Huskies looked much smoother on offense.
Flowers scored eight points in a row via a pair of three-pointers and an inside basket. Greffin added a spectacular around-the-back left-handed layup to whittle the Lions’ lead to 37-26 with 1:02 remaining in the third.
After Fuller took a charge, the Huskies regained possession with Greffin getting a clean look beyond the arc, but he missed the shot. Lyons Township forward Joe Brunner scored at the other end of the floor to halt the Huskies’ momentum.
OPRF got the lead down to eight points twice midway through the fourth quarter, courtesy of a three-pointer by Greffin and a layup plus one free throw by Wilkerson. The Lions made 9 of 12 free throws over the final four minutes of the game to preserve the key conference win.
Flowers led OPRF with 16 points while Wilkerson and Greffin also reached double figures with 14 points and 11 points, respectively
Aside from the Niego brothers’ combined 35 points, Jaquan Phipps and Brunner scored seven points apiece.