Powered by 21 points from point guard Harrison Niego and 14 points from his younger brother, Connor Niego, the Lyons Township High School basketball team held off a late rally by host Oak Park and River Forest to earn a 60-51 conference win Friday night.
“The most important thing about tonight’s game is we won our third conference game in three tries,” LTHS coach Tom Sloan said. “Oak Park is a really good team and winning at their place is always a big accomplishment. I think we have an unselfish group. Nobody cares who gets the credit, and we’re getting a better understanding of our strengths and weaknesses.”
One poor stretch of play for the Huskies proved too much to overcome against the Lions.
With essentially five new starters, highlighted by a four-guard attack and a relatively undersized frontline this season, the Oak Park and River Forest High School boys basketball team understandably is still a work in progress. At 5-3, the Huskies losses have been against three high quality teams in crosstown rival Fenwick, highly regarded Riverside-Brookfield and conference foe Lyons Township.
“In all three of our losses, it’s been a tale of two games,” OPRF coach Matt Maloney said. “We’ve had one really bad quarter in each game. It was the second quarter [tonight against LTHS]. Their press is designed just to slow you up and get out of your rhythm. In the first half, I thought we played right into their hands with their press and turned the ball over 10 times.”
Friday’s game actually started off in auspicious albeit fleeting fashion for the Huskies when senior guards Elliot Greffin and Dallis Flowers each made a three-point shot to give OPRF a 6-0 lead at 6:48 of the first quarter.
The Lions (8-1, 3-0 West Suburban Conference Silver Division) dominated the rest of the first half, however, outscoring OPRF 24-7 en route to a 24-13 halftime advantage. LTHS owned a 16-2 scoring edge in the second quarter.
Harrison Niego scored 14 of his game-high 21 points and his younger brother, promising 6-8 sophomore Connor Niego, contributed eight of his 14 points in the first half.
“We’re playing really well together as a team,” Harrison Niego said. “The ball is moving and everybody is playing their role extremely well. When we play five guys as one unit, we’re tough to beat.”
The Niego brothers’ cousin, Noah Niego, is a 6-4 sophomore who sees plenty of playing time for LTHS as well.
“It’s an absolute blast, a once-in a lifetime opportunity for the three of us to play together,” Connor Niego said. “Noah and I got called up to the varsity towards the end of last year. Whether it’s going up strong to the basket, making layups or hitting free throws, I’m working on something new every game.”
While the Niegos scored early and often against OPRF, the Huskies struggled initially against the Lions’ 2-3 zone defense. OPRF performed much better in the second half by scoring 38 of its 51 points.
“In the second half, we started attacking their press and we also started getting into the teeth of their zone defense,” Maloney said. “I was proud that we fought back. The guys showed a lot of spirit and character. We made a run in the fourth [quarter], but we could never could quite get it below six points.”
Although LTHS essentially maintained its halftime advantage by holding a 39-26 at the end of the third quarter, the Huskies looked much smoother on offense.
Flowers scored eight points in a row via a pair of three-pointers and layup. Greffin added a spectacular around the back left-handed layup to whittle the Lions’ lead to 37-26 with 1:02 remaining in the third.
After OPRF guard Connor Fuller took a charge, the Huskies regained possession with Greffin getting a clean look at a trey but he missed the shot. LTHS forward Joe Brunner scored an inside basket on the other end of the floor after Greffin’s miss to halt the Huskies’ momentum.
OPRF (5-3, 1-1) pulled within eight points of the Lions twice midway through the fourth quarter, courtesy of a three-pointer by Greffin and a layup plus one free throw by Breshawn Wilkerson. The Lions made 9 of 12 free throws over the final four minutes of the game to preserve the key conference win.
Aside from the Niego brothers’ combined 35 points, Jaquan Phipps and Joe Brunner scored seven points apiece.
Flowers led OPRF with 16 points while Wilkerson and Greffin also reached double figures with 14 points and 11 points, respectively.
Both teams face tricky home games on Sat., Dec. 20 as OPRF hosts defending conference champion Hinsdale Central, while the Lions welcome in area rival Riverside-Brookfield.
“Hinsdale Central is as good as they have been the last two years,” Maloney said. “They have great chemistry and execute so well. We know it’s going to be a super tough matchup.”
Over the holidays, LTHS will participate in the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic hosted by York High School.
“The Jack Tosh Classic is a great tournament,” Connor Niego said. “There’s always a ton of great teams in an awesome atmosphere at the perfect time of the year.”
OPRF will compete in the Pontiac Tournament.
“Pontiac is the best tournament in the state of Illinois,” Maloney said. “I would make that argument against anyone. The way the tournament is run and the competition are both the best. The town and the people are so welcoming. For our kids, it’s really great to be treated so well. It’s the best team-building experience of the year.”