Over the past six seasons, host Riverside-Brookfield and Oak Park and River Forest High School have won three titles apiece at the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic. Since the tourney started in 2003, RBHS has won the most titles with seven. However, the Huskies have competed in the well-regarded tourney for just the past six years.
The area rivals renewed their acquaintance on Friday, Nov. 24 in the final of their pool play bracket, with the winner advancing to the championship game of the tournament.
Viewed by many as an early-season showdown, the Bulldogs blew out the Huskies 70-50. OPRF shot poorly from the field (40 percent, including 1 of 16 on 3-pointers) and lost the battle on the boards (RBHS held a 39-20 rebounding edge).
The Bulldogs’ aggressiveness and physicality seemed to catch the Huskies off guard. OPRF trailed by eight points at both the end of the first quarter and at halftime. RBHS extended its lead to 19 points in the fourth quarter.
“We have to give the credit to RB in this one,” OPRF coach Matt Maloney said. “They came out with more energy and effort that carried through four quarters of play.”
Seniors Anthony Roberts and Chase Robinson led OPRF with 14 and 12 points, respectively.
Beating OPRF, particularly in convincing fashion, resonated with RBHS star guard Zach Vaia.
“We’ve seen a lot of that team over the years,” Vaia said. “I’m glad we finally beat them. It was even better to win at home with our fans.”
In the third-place game, OPRF edged St. Rita 72-66 as Robinson paced the Huskies with 21 points. Roberts had 17 points and promising 6-foot-6 sophomore Isaiah Barnes finished with 11 points, including a trio of 3-pointers.
Trailing the Mustangs by eight points with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Huskies’ defensive style (known as “Huskie Havoc”) kicked into full effect. Josh Smith and Justin Cross led the defensive frenzy with their ability to cause stops and create turnovers. Smith also made several clutch free throws and Dan Francis nailed a huge 3-pointer, extending the OPRF lead to five points with 45 seconds left in the game.
“The St. Rita game was one of the best victories I’ve had the pleasure to coach at OPRF,” Maloney said. “Our young men showed great resilience from the evening before and tremendous grit in the come-from-behind victory. This win revealed the heart and character of many of our players and will set the stage for tougher games moving forward.”
In other tourney games, the Huskies defeated Morton (61-55) and Rich East (85-61).
OPRF edged Morton with a balanced effort offensively as Roberts (13 points), Barnes (11 points), Cross (9 points, 10 rebounds) and Francis (8 points) all chipped in. Defensively, Robinson and Roberts collaborated to hold Morton star Latik Murphy to five points, which proved to be the difference in the game.
Roberts scored 22 points and Robinson finished with 17 against Rich East. Charlie Hoehne added 13 points and reserve Kyren Gardner scored 14.
Roberts and Robinson were named to the all-tournament team. Other players picked on the team were Lamond Johnson (Kenwood), Murphy (Morton), Jacob Schauer (Wheaton North), Joel Watts (St. Rita) and Patrick Hanley (RBHS). Vaia and RBHS teammate Andrew Veon earned co-MVP honors.
Looking ahead, Maloney asserts the best is yet to come.
“I truly believe that come January, you will see a completely different team than people saw over Thanksgiving,” he said. “With so many young guys on the squad and only a week and a half to prepare, we didn’t have everything in our arsenal in place. We have to polish many of our foundational defenses and offensive philosophies.”
The Huskies (4-1) consolidated their strong showing at the VandeMerkt tourney with a 69-59 win over Hinsdale Central in their conference opener. Hoehne scored 13 points and Enoch had 12. Robinson and Roberts contributed 10 points apiece.
OPRF takes on Fenwick (2-1) in the Chicago Elite Classic at Wintrust Arena (200 E. Cermak Rd., Chicago) on Friday, Nov. 30. Tip-off is 9 p.m.
St. Rita, St. Ignatius, Bloom, West Aurora, Bloomington, Uplift, Evanston, Morgan Park, Bogan and Simeon are also in the CEC field. National powers Mater Dei (California), St. Vincent-St. Mary (Ohio), Dominican (Wisconsin), Vashon (Missouri) and Sunrise Christian Academy (Kansas) are competing in the tournament as well.