You might have had the weekend of Thanksgiving off, but Oak Park and River Forest and Riverside Brookfield high schools spent Nov. 29 sparring in the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic. The Bulldogs upset the Huskies in an 88-79 thriller that saw both teams tugging back and forth with the momentum. 

OPRF’s Isaiah Barnes poured in 25 points, and his teammate Josh Smith contributed 23. RB’s Paul Zilinskas tallied 23 points and went 5-8 from 3-point range. Jamir Truman established himself as a force in the paint and ended the game with 14 points. Barnes, Zilinskas, and Truman earned all-tournament team honors.

“We want to be peaking in January, February and beyond,” said OPRF head coach Matt Maloney. “We have been a better second half team the last few years. But we are going to use this as lessons and not losses. There’s a lot of bright spots and a lot of learning and practice time before we get to Pontiac and beyond.”

Before the season, Bulldogs’ head coach Mike Reingruber told Wednesday Journal that the team would rely on hitting from beyond the arc. That is exactly what they did on Nov. 29.

In the first quarter, RB came out firing from the perimeter and Zilinskas ended the quarter with a contested three over Rashaad Trice in the corner as time expired to give the Bulldogs a 21-15 lead. Even with a marginal six-point lead heading into the second quarter, it was clear that RB was feeding off the energy of the rambunctious home crowd, propelling their momentum.

 “I think we were clicking on all cylinders, especially at the end of the first half,” said Reingruber. “We had 30 points off the bench which is kind of unheard of in high school. We have eight guys who know how to put the ball in the basket, and they all were able to do that on Friday.”

The Bulldogs started to pull away at the 4:15 mark when Zilinskas hit another three to increase the Huskies’ deficit to 11. Over the last four minutes of the half, RB kept pushing the ball down the floor and finding the open man from deep. OPRF’s Josh Smith halted the momentum with a coast-to-coast transition layup that resulted in a 3-point play to make the score 41-29.

However, RB wing John Hanley scored eight points in the final two minutes and gave the Bulldogs a 52-35 lead going into halftime.

Despite the sizeable deficit, OPRF didn’t go away in the second half.

The Huskies forced RB to turn the ball over during the last six minutes of the third quarter by pressing full court which started their comeback.

After Barnes struggled to get anything going in the first half, one RB fan, who trash talked OPRF’s squad throughout, yelled, “Let Barnes shoot! He can’t hit anything!”

Spurred, perhaps, by the fan’s remarks, Barnes took over and had two monster dunks, and went 4-4 from mid-range and 3-point range in a four-minute span. After sophomore guard Demetrius Dortch hit a contact layup and Barnes threw a full-court outlet pass to Smith for a lay-in, the Huskies made it a one-possession game after Barnes pushed off his defender and buried another mid-range shot.

“The guys showed tremendous fight being down [over 20] points,” said Maloney. “We did that in 6-8 minutes. I think that is a testament to the heart these guys play with and that, when we clamp down, we are going to be tough to beat.”

With six minutes left to play and the score 68-66 in favor of the Bulldogs, Reingruber called a timeout to regroup his team.

“We just had to calm them down more than anything,” Reingruber said. “Basketball is a game of runs and that was theirs. I told them to move onto the next play, and it was as simple as that.”

The Huskies’ comeback efforts were stunted after the timeout when RB guard Ryan Gaynor hit back-to-back transition threes to give his team a 74-66 lead. Both teams traded baskets the rest of the way and the duel ended in an 88-79 RBHS win.

OPRF overcame that tough loss the next night and roughed up Proviso West in an 83-67 victory. They placed third in the tournament. St. Rita won the eight-team tourney.

Their next game comes against Fenwick at the Chicago Elite Classic on Dec. 6 at Wintrust Arena.

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