Late January in high school boys basketball can be the equivalent of Major League Baseball’s dog days of summer in August. Teams around the state are dealing with the grind of conference play and also with injuries and unexpected absences as they start preparing for the state tournament that begins in late February.
Saturday night in LaGrange, both Oak Park and River Forest and Lyons Township were missing several key players. But their absences didn’t diminish the intensity of this West Suburban Conference Silver Division matchup.
This particular round went to OPRF as junior forward Anthony Roberts had a game-high 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a 57-48 win over the host Lions.
Even with the win, a good coach is always going to find something wrong to point out. OPRF coach Matt Maloney expressed concern about the Huskies’ apparent lack of energy and focus at the beginning of the game.
“We didn’t have a lot of spirit and intensity during the warm-up and that carried over into the first quarter,” he said. “And in the second half, after I challenged our guys to extend the lead, we again came out with a bit of a lull. We’ve got to do better with our starts to the game and second half. But we did enough to win at the end.”
Indeed, the Huskies fell behind early by deficits of 6-1 and 16-9 as LTHS junior guard Tyrese Shines came scored nine points early in the game.
“Our biggest thing right now is finding a way to be consistent for 32 minutes,” Maloney said. “We haven’t done so often this year. When we have, we’ve been hard to beat.”
OPRF senior guard Isaiah Fuller’s 3-point basket in the closing seconds of the opening quarter proved to be a momentum-changer. It cut the OPRF deficit to 16-12 after one quarter. Then the Huskies shut out the Lions in the second quarter 18-0 to take a 30-16 halftime lead.
“The second quarter was the best quarter we’ve played all year,” Maloney said. “That was tremendous.”
During those eight minutes of near perfection, OPRF employed its defensive system of “Huskie Havoc” on to create easy scoring opportunities and an up-tempo game. Fittingly, the Huskies ended the half with a sweet alley-oop dunk by Roberts.
“Anthony had his best offensive game of the year,” Maloney said.
Roberts clearly was an inside force as several of his baskets came off his own offensive rebounds.
“On offense, I try to find open spots and make sure my teammates see me,” Roberts said. “And I’ve managed to finish around the rim.”
In the third quarter, LTHS junior guard Nolan Niego scored seven of his 12 points as the Lions outscored the Huskies 17-12 to trim their deficit to 42-33.
In the fourth, junior guard Josh Berry came off the bench to score all 10 of his points as LTHS – which was without junior guard Lazarius Williams – attempted to continue its rally.
Roberts, Fuller and Chase Robinson scored timely baskets, however, to keep OPRF comfortably ahead. Fuller finished with 12 points and Robinson 11.
“We played great tonight,” Roberts said. “That second quarter in which we shut them out gave us a lot of confidence. Our defense sets up our offense, and the coaches stress defense in practice all the time. We’ve got to stay strong both defensively and offensively as well as mentally stay together.”
Shines led the Lions (10-11, 2-6) with a team-high 13 points.
Despite missing two key players with injuries – Charlie Hoehne (sprained ankle) and Phil Saleh (strained hamstring) – OPRF’s frontline dominated the glass once again, outrebounding the Lions by a margin of 26-14. Malachi Ross had eight rebounds.
The Huskies also received valuable minutes from senior reserve forward Trey Royal.
“Malachi is a warrior. He’s not 100 percent but he’s all over the glass and playing hard,” Maloney said. “Trey was our MVP against Proviso West (69-56 OPRF victory). He did a great job in the second half against Proviso West’s big man in Ronnie Allgood. He was physical with him, and he was the same way tonight.
“Trey is a glue guy. We have a philosophy on our team of when one’s time comes up, he will be ready. Trey showed when he got his time, he was ready. He gave us energy and did a lot of the little things that we talk about all the time. I was very proud of his efforts this week.”
As the calendar turns to February, the Huskies and Lions will be looking to fine-tune things for the playoffs. In the case of OPRF, a healthy return of Hoehne and Saleh would be helpful.
“We’ve also got to get Phil and Charlie back so that we can establish the depth we had earlier in the season,” Maloney said. “But to beat Proviso West and LT short-handed, especially when LT was coming off a 13-point win (73-60 at Downers Grove North) the night before, this was a nice week for us.”
OPRF (16-4, 7-0) hits the road this weekend with games at Glenbard West on Friday, Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m. and at Evanston on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m.