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By their own collective admission, Riverside-Brookfield's Damonta Henry and Luke Nortier needed time to figure each other out on the basketball court.
"Damonta has kind of grown on me," Nortier said with a laugh after the Bulldogs' 60-56 win over Ridgewood on Friday. "Our first year [2010-2011 varsity] I don't want to say we were shaky, but we were just getting used to each other. We have developed a good relationship, and he's having a great season."
Added Henry: "We didn't know anything about each other. Sometimes, we would look at each other like, hey, everybody is just standing around and nobody's moving on the court."
How fittingly full circle that Henry and Nortier made several key plays in the final minute of the Bulldogs' clutch Metro Suburban Conference title-clinching victory over heated rival Ridgewood. Perhaps, Bulldog basketball's previously perceived odd couple more accurately can be labeled, Fire and Ice. Henry is an offensive threat often generating a spectacular display of pull-up jumpers, contortion-like layups and on-the-money passes to teammates, while Nortier is an unassuming leader, premier defender, and stat-sheet stuffer who always plays with equanimity on the court. For a basketball analogy, Henry is to Nortier what Derrick Rose is to Luol Deng for the Chicago Bulls.
For good measure, 6-foot-7 junior center Miki Ljuboja provides the thunder in the Bulldogs' versatile, loaded lineup.
While all three players led RB to a 22-4 regular season record and an 11th straight conference title this season, Henry is easily the most electrifying amid the Bulldogs' triangle of stars.
"Damonta is really quick," RB senior guard Andrew Hanley said. "He's got a killer crossover. When he gets in the lane it's hard to stop him."
This season, Henry is averaging 17.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
"Damonta has really made great strides this season," RB coach Tom McCloskey said. "He's a guy that really controls where we are going on the court. He's scored 20 points or more eight times this season, which is impressive considering that a lot of our emphasis this season has been getting the ball to Miki inside. Damonta does whatever it takes to help our team win.
Early on, McCloskey sensed Henry could be a future difference-maker for RB. Like another charismatic point guard from three decades ago, Magic Johnson, Henry is an innate leader with a contagious passion for the game.
"Damonta has a great smile," McCloskey said. "He's always had that smile even when we first discovered him in camp when he was in fourth grade. He loves to play basketball and he's very popular with his teammates."
Aside from the input of McCloskey and the rest of the RB coaching staff, Henry's development is directly attributable to his own work ethic and the considerable influence of his mother, Sandra Williams.
"She's my motivation," Henry said. "Every time I step on the court, I play for the both of us. I want to be able to change her life later on down the road so she can stop working. I think she has missed only one game in all the years I've been playing basketball."
In addition to hopefully a long postseason run with the Bulldogs this season, Henry has big plans for his senior campaign with RB, which will return a majority of its lineup next season.
"I'm definitely playing AAU ball this summer," said Henry, who worked with a personal trainer over the last offseason. "My goal is to work really hard because I want to go to college out of state and play college basketball."
Henry also feels RB is the perfect setting to prepare for the educational rigors of collegiate life. The North Riverside resident cites history as his favorite subject and Mrs. Mynaugh his
"RB challenges you academically," he said. "More importantly, [RB] gets you ready for the ACT. I think it's the best school in terms of education."
Next year, the Bulldogs will be regarded as one of the top teams in the Chicagoland area with the weight of expectations falling most directly on the talented shoulders of Ljuboja and Henry.
"Damonta is a great leader," said Ljuboja, who is averaging 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. "He always lets us know what needs to be done on the court. We run some pick and roll and he does a great job feeding the post. We're comfortable together."
Sounds a lot like the Bulldogs' current Fire and Ice, Henry and Nortier.