Over the years, there have been several competitive high school boys basketball games between Oak Park and River Forest and Lyons Township. The Huskies and Lions are longtime West Suburban Conference Silver Division rivals, and whenever they meet, team records might as well be discarded because it’s sure to be a battle.
The latest installment of the rivalry took place Friday, Dec. 8 in Oak Park, with the Huskies prevailing over the Lions 57-50.
Despite the win, OPRF coach Matt Maloney wasn’t necessarily excited about it.
“I thought we were content from last Friday (a 64-59 victory over Fenwick at UIC),” he said. “We were sloppy and didn’t execute during the first three quarters. We didn’t do the little things. Our week of practice was similar to what was seen tonight.”
Part of the reason for the sloppiness and lack of execution from the Huskies may have been due to an expected emotional letdown post-Chicago Elite Classic from last week. However, OPRF was also not playing its regular rotation upfront as Phil Saleh was at Fordham University in New York for a football recruiting trip and Malachi Ross didn’t start the game due to bad knees.
“We were trying to get Malachi some rest since his knees have been banged up all year,” Maloney said. “He’s not 100 percent and we’re trying to get him there by January. The trainer said he’s good to go if you need him. I gave him rest as long as I could, but he came into the game and gave us a spark.”
OPRF guards Dashon Enoch (16 points) and Isaiah Fuller (14 points) paced OPRF offensively. Fuller had two breakaway dunks in the first half that energized the crowd.
He also admitted after that game that the Huskies should’ve had a better showing than they displayed against LTHS.
“I thought we could have played harder,” Fuller said. “We should have won by more. But we hit a few free throws at the end and I thought it was good that we won.”
Tyrese Shines led LTHS with a game-high 18 points and Lazarius Williams added 12 points. Nolan Niego struggled from the field for the Lions, hitting just 3 of 12 shots for six points.
LTHS coach Tom Sloan feels Shines has developed greatly during his three-year varsity career.
“He’s improved a lot,” he said. “Ty is bigger, stronger and can finish in traffic. He has improved his jump shot, rebounding and defense. He’s done a lot of nice things for us.”
Although the Lions’ upset bid was spoiled courtesy of timely defense by OPRF in the fourth quarter, Sloan praised his team’s competitive spirit.
“I’m really proud of our guys’ effort,” he said. “Coming out of halftime down eight against a really good team, we stuck with it and were able to tie the game. I thought we were patient and poised and took advantage of our opportunities.
“In the last three minutes or so, we couldn’t get a bucket and they made some free throws. (OPRF) made enough plays to win the game, but we pushed them close to the limit.”
After a first quarter that ended with the teams tied 13-13, Fuller’s aforementioned two dunks spurred OPRF to take a 30-22 lead at halftime.
“It’s fun playing (LTHS),” Fuller said. “It’s definitely different from playing Fenwick, but the vibe and intensity are always there.”
About halfway through the third quarter, LTHS went on a 9-2 run to tie the game at 37. The Huskies immediately responded with five consecutive points to reclaim the lead, and OPRF had a 46-42 advantage after three quarters.
In the fourth, the Lions (2-5, 0-1) managed to pull into a 50-50 tie.
Ross makes difference
That’s when Ross, a 6-foot-3 senior, came off the bench to give the Huskies a much-needed boost with his inspired play both offensively and defensively. His put back basket with about four minutes left gave OPRF the lead for good, and his perimeter defense made it difficult for Shines and the other Lions shooters to get good looks as LTHS went scoreless down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Huskies hit 5 of 7 free throws to pull away.
“Malachi made the difference on both ends,” Maloney said. “He had a lot of hustle plays, offensive rebounds, blocked shots and deflected passes. He’s the loudest guy on the floor and does the things a three-year varsity player does. Clearly with him on the floor in the last four minutes, he changed the game.”
The unbeaten Huskies (6-0, 1-0) appear to be in line for a high seed in the upcoming Pontiac Holiday Tournament, which features some of Illinois’ top teams, including Chicago Public League powers Curie and Simeon and tradition-laden programs like Bloom, Peoria Manual, Waukegan and West Aurora.
Maloney knows OPRF can’t afford to take any team for granted, especially after the Fenwick win.
“We talked about this (LTHS) being a trap game,” Maloney said. ” You get a big win at UIC and the bullseye increases. Everyone’s going to come with their best.
“If you think you’re not going to have guys try to knock you off, you’re crazy. Hopefully, we can learn from this and realize that everyone is going show up and try to beat us.”
Before leaving for Pontiac, the Huskies host Glenbard West on Friday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m.