January 1st, 2018 8:47 AM
OPRF senior guard Isaiah Fuller (11) was an unanimous pick to make the Pontiac All-Tournament Team. He's versatile guard offensively with excellent defensive ability as well. (File photo)
The Oak Park and River Forest High School boys basketball team enjoyed a 13-day break after starting the season 7-0. Yet, given that the only win of significance was a win over Fenwick at the Chicago Elite Classic, there were some fans questioning how good the Huskies really were.
The Pontiac Holiday Tournament that featured some of the best teams in Illinois - Public League powers Curie and Simeon, Benet, Bloomington, and West Aurora among others - provided the Huskies with a major opportunity to make a statement. OPRF finished with a 2-2 record at Pontiac and Huskies' head coach Matt Maloney was pleased with his team's effort.
"All of the Pontiac faithful commented on how hard our guys played," he said. "I was very proud of their will and fight against Bloomington and Curie. Our guys showed the grit we have been emphasizing in the early portion of the year."
On December 28, playing its first game since that extensive break, OPRF got off to a great start by defeating Lockport 77-56. Senior guard Isaiah Fuller led the Huskies with 23 points. Junior forward Anthony Roberts added 16 points, and senior guard Sid Allgood had 10 points and 4 assists.
The next day, the Huskies faced Bloomington, one of the top Downstate teams. The Purple Raiders, who finished third in Class 3A last season, featured one of the state's best junior prospects in forward Chris Payton. His 24-point, 10-rebound, and 4-block performance had Bloomington in position to defeat OPRF.
But the Huskies - who trailed by five points with 5:12 left in the game - rallied behind a big effort from Fuller, who scored seven points over the next 3 1/2 minutes. Then Roberts' inside bucket with :42 remaining gave OPRF the lead. Payton had three chances to win the game for Bloomington, but he missed two shots and was also called for traveling. The Huskies held on for a 61-60 victory. Fuller (24 points), junior guard Chase Robinson (15 points), and Roberts (11 points) played huge roles in the win.
Fuller earned an unanimous selection to the Pontiac All-Tournament Team.
"Isaiah earned a tremendous accolade that only Huskie greats have earned", Maloney said. "If you are named an unanimous choice as a first-team all-tourney selection, you must have been one of the best all-around players at the best tournament in the Midwest. With that being said, Isaiah has taken on the responsibilities of being our primary ballhandler, covering the opposition's best guard, and - at times - their best big, along with picking up his scoring load from last season."
On December 30, the Huskies' semifinal opponent was Curie - a team they defeated last season at the 4A Proviso East sectional semifinal. OPRF led the Condors 20-14 at halftime and 30-25 after three quarters. However, Curie rallied to take a 39-37 lead late in regulation. A clutch basket by Robinson with around 30 seconds to go tied it up for the Huskies. But the Condors decided to play for the final shot, and Marquise Walker's 3-pointer went in as time expired to give the Huskies a 42-39 defeat. The loss snapped a season-opening nine-game winning streak for OPRF. Robinson had 14 points and Fuller 13 for the Huskies.
After such a devastating defeat, the Huskies had to regroup and play the third-place game that evening against Danville - another top Downstate team. OPRF actually hung in for some time, but the Vikings - led by Kendle Moore's 33 points - outscored the Huskies 25-10 in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 78-56 win. Junior forward Charlie Hoehne led OPRF with 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Robinson added 14 points and seven rebounds.
One item that may be of concern going forward is the health status of junior guard Dashon Enoch, who did not play at Pontiac due to a concussion suffered in practice. He's a good, energetic all-around player and his absence was felt more as the tournament progressed.
"Dashon is our second-leading scorer and one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the state," Maloney said. "We definitely missed him in the tourney. We know his energy on the defensive side of the ball and his scoring would have helped tremendously. However, Chase Robinson and Anthony Roberts stepped up admirably to aid us in his absence."
Indeed, the efforts of players like Roberts and Robinson speak to the depth this team has. Both Roberts and Robinson earned Honorable Mention status at Pontiac. They also reflect the great grit and determination the Huskies have shown, traits that will become more important as the season progresses.
Maloney believes OPRF will be helped by playing in such a loaded tournament as Pontiac. Yet he also knows there is still some work to do as the Huskies prepare for the rest of the season.
"We played three of the top seven teams in the state in two days," he said of playing Bloomington, Curie, and Danville. "We beat one, lost on a buzzer-beater to another, and lost a few hours later in a tough bounce-back game. Overall, our fight was tremendous, but our execution wasn't always where we will need it to be for the second half (of the season) along with our attention to detail.
"After this tourney, the coaches are confident our players are dedicated to fine-tuning what we do on both sides of the ball and will focus on playing our best basketball the second half of the year as we have the past few years."