Riverside-Brookfield and Lyons Township are viable contenders to win the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic (Dec. 26-Dec. 31) this year. Each team has claimed the tournament championship once, with the Lions winning in 2009 and the Bulldogs in 2001. Led by Dartmouth-bound Evan Boudreaux, Lake Forest is the current defending champion.
The Bulldogs and Lions tuned up for the annual tournament hosted at York High School by facing each other on Saturday.
RBHS emerged with a 66-64 over the host Lions. The Bulldogs, who have beaten LTHS in four of the last five meetings, improved to 9-0 while the Lions fell to 8-2.
Tied at 62 with 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, RBHS sophomore Jalen Clanton made a three-pointer in the left corner off an assist from fellow guard Daniko Jackson to put the Bulldogs up 65-62. After LTHS forward Joe Brunner misfired on a game-tying three-point attempt, Jackson split a pair of free throws with 10 seconds left. LTHS senior guard Harrison Niego converted a layup in the closing seconds to make the final score 66-64.
“Jalen’s shot was huge,” RBHS junior Mark Smith said. “As soon as the ball left his hand, I knew it was going in. This win against LT is definitely one of my favorite wins. It’s such a rivalry so it’s great to come out on top.”
In addition to Clanton’s clutch shot, RBHS post players Sam Johnson (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Smith (16 points, 10 rebounds) each recorded a double-double. Jackson directed the Bulldogs’ offense beautifully with nine points and 12 assists.
Niego led the Lions with a game-high 26 points and Jaquan Phipps contributed 20 points. 6-8 sophomore Connor Niego (Harrison’s younger brother) finished with 10 points.
Prior to their Saturday showdown, the Bulldogs and Lions each earned a conference road win the previous night. RBHS routed Fenton 81-44 and LTHS defeated Oak Park and River Forest 60-51.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 20-5 lead after one quarter and a 40-11 halftime advantage en route to their lopsided victory. Johnson, the frontrunner for Metro Suburban Conference MVP, continued his superb play with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists against the Bison. Smith (16 points), Henry Trelenberg (14 points) and Clanton (10 points) also contributed to the Bulldogs’ balanced attack. Reserved Jake Lucas chipped in eight points.
The Lions defeated OPRF in large part due to their first-half performance. After the host Huskies took a 6-0 lead on three-point shots by senior guards Elliot Greffin and Dallis Flowers, LTHS outscored OPRF 24-7 en route to a 24-13 halftime advantage. The Lions outscored the Huskies 16-2 in the second quarter.
In the first half, Harrison Niego scored 14 of his game-high 21 points and 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.”
OPRF (5-4) 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 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.
“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
Bulldogs, Lions ready to take on tough Tosh competition
The Bulldogs and Lions now turn their attention to the aforementioned Jack Tosh Holiday Classic.
At 9-0 with several impressive wins already under their belt, the Bulldogs enter the tournament full of confidence.
“The Tosh tournament is great because we get to play tough opponents without advance notice of who they will be” Smith said. “I think we could win the tournament, especially with the way we’ve been playing. Everyone just has to do their job.
“The start to our season has been a big confidence boost for us. We’ve got a nice little streak going, and I don’t see why it has to end any time soon.”
Like Smith, Connor Niego is another promising big man eager to showcase his skills at Tosh.
“The Jack Tosh Holiday Classic is a great tournament,” he said. “It’s a great chance to test yourself against top players. There’s always a ton of great teams in an awesome atmosphere at the perfect time of the year.”
On Friday, December 26 in opening round games at Tosh, the Lions take on Wheaton North at 3 p.m. and the Bulldogs face Lane Tech at 6:30 p.m.