The Riverside-Brookfield boys basketball team was gunning for its 17th-straight win, third consecutive regional championship and a much desired measure of revenge against Crane on Friday night. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, none of these tantalizing scenarios occurred as the visiting Cougars defeated RB 69-57 in the Class 3A RB Regional title game. With the victory, Crane knocked the Bulldogs (23-5) out of the playoffs on their home court for the second straight season.
In fact, nothing seemed to go the Bulldogs’ way as the hotly contested rematch even included a power outage due to inclement weather with 1:39 left in the game and RB trailing 62-51. Earlier in the final quarter, RB forward Louis Marino converted a left-handed layup in traffic to pull RB within 53-49. As they seemingly did all night though, the Cougars answered the RB run with 16-8 spurt of their own, highlighted by a pair of emphatic dunks by 6-5 junior Kendal Sidney to seal the victory.
RB center Miki Ljuboja made a free throw to put the Bulldogs up 5-4 at the 5:30 mark of the first quarter. But that scoreline would be the last lead for the high-powered Bulldogs. Crane responded with a 10-4 spurt to hold a 14-8 edge at the end of the opening period. The Cougars were powered by the terrific tandem of sophomore point guard Issaiah Hayes (32 points) and senior swingman Willie Conner (22 points). Hayes dominated the action, particularly in the first half by scoring 21 points as the high flying Cougars seized a 32-25 halftime advantage.
In the third quarter, Crane pushed out to a 41-27 advantage capped off by the sophomore Hayes’ three-pointer at the 6:08 mark. Shortly after that shot, Crane’s 6-8, 260-pound center Kaylen Shane, who had limited Ljuboja to just three points, picked up his fourth foul.
Ljuboja, sans Shane, immediately went to work scoring nine points during a 19-7 scoring flurry to draw RB within 48-43 in the final minute of the third quarter. In the end though, the Cougars’ athleticism (Crane had four dunks) and defensive pressure proved too much for RB to overcome.
Damonta Henry paced RB with 18 points while Ljuboja contributed 16 points. Marino added 13 points for the Bulldogs.
Last year, the Cougars knocked off RB 80-75 in the RB Sectional Championship game despite 42 points and seven boards from former RB guard Ryan Jackson, now a freshman guard at Lewis University.
Crane (18-6) moves on to the Glenbard South Sectional where they will face St. Francis in a sectional semifinal game on Tuesday. The Spartans shocked sectional top seed Orr 39-36 on Friday night. Under first-year Crane head coach Chris Head, the Cougars appear to be jelling at the perfect time of the year.
RB enjoyed another banner season under veteran coach Tom McCloskey. The Bulldogs captured their 11th-straight conference championship (finished 12-0 in the Metro Suburban), won the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Tournament and closed the season on a tear by winning 16 of 17 games.
While the Bulldogs will lose five players to graduation, the bulk of their rotation is back next season headlined by Henry, Ljuboja, Eric Loury and Liam Lesniak. Junior-to-be Will Kincanon, who led the sophomore team to a conference title this season, should add even more firepower to the RB lineup.