With an 8-8 record in late January, the Oak Park and River Forest High School boys basketball team found itself at the crossroads.
Coach Matt Maloney asked former players for advice and lessons they learned from the program that he shared with the current players.
“We went over every single one,” Maloney said. “How do want to be remembered is something we always talk about. What’s going to be the stamp on this senior group?”
The Huskies’ season ended Friday, but their 67-61 loss to top-seeded Riverside-Brookfield in the Class 4A Leyden Regional final showed how far they’ve come and how bright the future should be.
No. 8 seed OPRF (17-10) had won seven straight and nine of its last 10. The Huskies, however, immediately dug a hole with 2 of 16 shooting in the first quarter and 6 of 32 at the half, yet they only trailed 32-18 after being down 20 at 27-7.
7-0 run brought the Huskies to 42-34 entering the fourth quarter but they never got closer than five points until the final minute.
“We just didn’t come out to play at first. They came out playing great ball,” said Dallis Flowers, OPRF’s lone senior starter. “If we would have had like two more minutes, we would have had them, but we should have come out better prepared than that.”
R-B (26-3) won its first 4A regional title and established a program record for victories in a season.
“It’s great to win a regional. Winning a regional with four classes is a lot harder,” R-B coach Tom McCloskey said. “I thought Mark got us going early (11 first-quarter points). Daniko had a tremendous game. It was a great team effort. We beat an awfully good team tonight.”
Flowers had 24 points and freshman Alan Griffin and junior Breshawn Wilkerson each had 11. R-B juniors Daniko Jackson (20 points) and Mark Smith (18 points) and sophomore Jalen Clanton (10 points) scored in double figures.
On Nov. 29, the Bulldogs beat OPRF 62-57 in the championship game of R-B’s Bill VandeMerkt Classic after opening an 18-point lead in the third quarter before the Huskies nearly rallied.
“We did the same thing with them the first time,” Maloney said. “This is the first time since probably early or mid-January that we didn’t really play four quarters. We kind of reverted back to some of our earlier days of the year but we fought back and won the rest of the game. Had we had one more quarter, we would have been victorious.”
The Huskies closed to 59-53 with 1:28 left and 62-57 with 39 seconds. R-B sank 16 of 19 free throws in the fourth quarter to finish 24 of 28 compared with 16 of 21 for OPRF, which actually had one more field goal. Each team had seven threes.
“We just couldn’t get that key stop or get a steal and an easy two. We needed that run to kind of get that confidence going,” Maloney said.
“I’m very proud of how these guys came together over the last two months, a totally different team than we saw at the beginning of the season. No one was expecting anything from us. We were picked to finish last in the conference (and were third). I think these guys really surprised some people winning 17 games with the schedule we have.”
Even with a varsity lineup boasting two sophomores and a freshman, the Huskies won the freshman conference title and the sophomores ended on a nine-game winning streak.
Flowers had 13 of the Huskies’ 27 points in the fourth quarter with two of his three threes.
Afterwards, he gave the younger players his advice.
“I told them all play defense, listen to Maloney because he knows what he’s talking about,” said Flowers, who will play at Robert Morris-Chicago. “Next year, they’re going to be a great team. They’re going to be big, excellent shooting.”