By Melvin Tate
Entering this past weekend, OPRF's boys basketball team was very much alive for at least a share of their fourth consecutive West Suburban Silver title. Tied with Hinsdale Central for second place and one game behind York, the Huskies hosted the Dukes for a critical game on Feb. 15.
Moreover, York was without leading scorer Nate Shockey (out with mononucleosis) which gave the Huskies a prime opportunity to make a stand.
OPRF (13-10 overall, 6-4 in conference) led York the majority of the game, but the Huskies' lack of execution on both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter would spell doom. The Dukes exploded for 26 points in the final quarter to secure a 53-42 win. Coupled with a 53-48 loss at Glenbard West the previous evening, the outcome eliminated OPRF from conference championship contention while also giving York a share of its first conference crown since 2006.
"It was a good game," said OPRF forward Josh Smith. "I feel we could've done more towards the end to win it. But a couple of calls didn't go our way, and York fought hard and got a hard-earned win."
Things started off relatively well for the Huskies as they led 12-7 after the first quarter, holding York without a field goal until nearly five minutes into the contest. The Dukes opened the second quarter with a 5-0 run to tie the score, and the lead seesawed between the teams the remainder of the half as OPRF took a 21-20 lead into intermission.
The Huskies opened the second half with a 5-0 run of their own to raise their advantage to 26-20. But then York's Jeff Grace heated up, scoring all seven of the Dukes' third-quarter points. Even so, OPRF still led 32-27 after three.
However, fourth quarters have been problematic several games this season for the Huskies, and their late-game woes continued again Saturday night. York used an 8-1 run to start the fourth, capping it with a three-pointer by Jacob Brandolino to take a 35-33 lead with five minutes left.
"I think we've got to stay motivated and decide that we want to close games," said Smith. "We need to play harder and come together as a team, which we haven't done a lot of times. As a result, we give up in the last moments because we're frustrated. We need to calm down, play together, and communicate when we're out there. That way, we'll be able to execute in the fourth quarter."
On OPRF's next possession, Rashard Trice scored underneath and drew a foul to tie the game. However, the Dukes followed with a 13-2 run to put the game out of reach.
Grace led York (25-3 overall, 9-1 in conference) with 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists. In the absence of Shockey, the Dukes received valuable contributions from Lex Harrison (12 points, four rebounds) and Tim Galvan (10 rebounds).
Smith led OPRF with 20 points to pace OPRF while Barnes (14 points) was the only other Huskie in double-digit scoring. OPRF shot 30% (14-of-47, including 5-of-20 from 3-point range) on the evening. The Dukes outrebounded the Huskies 30-17 and, to make matters worse, OPRF went 9-of-18 from the free throw line.
Now that OPRF cannot win a fourth consecutive conference crown, the Huskies will attempt to fine-tune their game in preparation for the state tournament in the coming weeks. And even with the losses, Smith still feels confident that the team can come together and compete deep into March.
"We're all looking forward to the postseason and going as far as we can," Smith said. "In the past, we've had teams that have not won conference and didn't get far in the postseason, so (to avoid that) we're still focused on the regular season as much as possible, and to do that we need to come into practice and work hard every day. We also need to play each and every game as it's our last, maximize our moments, and do the little things. The most important thing right now is winning and getting better."
The Huskies travel to Downers Grove North on Feb. 21 for a 7:30 p.m. tip, then host Proviso West on Feb. 22 at 4 p.m.
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