It wasn’t easy but the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball team proved more than worthy of its No. 1 seed in the Morton Sectional of the Class 4A playoffs. The Bulldogs pulled off a 66-61 win over the sectional host Mustangs in a compelling championship game. RBHS (28-3) also claimed the first sectional title in the history of the boys basketball program and recently broke the program record for most wins in a season.
“It’s been an amazing year,” RBHS coach Tom McCloskey said. “We have played well so many times in close games. To be honest, I think we did this [winning a sectional] for all the guys who have played basketball at R-B. I know they’re sharing it with us.
“It’s a great moment, it’s history. Our community has come out in droves to these games and our school has given us great support. The players have been fantastic all year. It’s been fun and we want to keep it going as long as we can.”
Engaged in an intense battle before a standing room only crowd with that included ample support for both teams, 6-1 senior Luke Belcaster made a three-pointer in the deep right corner to put Morton up 56-52 with 4:05 left in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs quickly recaptured the momentum, however, outscoring the Mustangs 14-5 the rest of the way en route to victory.
“This win was all about persistence,” RBHS forward Sam Johnson said. “It was a back and forth game. When they got ahead, we always stayed close. I can’t even explain what it means to be the first team in RB history to win a sectional. We realized how much it means to the school and community. It’s just an amazing feeling to be a part of it.
“Tonight was an incredible atmosphere. Both teams were feeding off the crowd’s energy. It was just so much fun to play in this kind of game.”
Johnson started the Bulldogs’ decisive rally with a tricky bank shot leaner just outside the left side of the lane. Junior point guard Daniko Jackson, who orchestrated the RBHS offense briilliantly, sank a three-pointer from the top of the key to push RBHS ahead 57-56 at the 3:52 mark.
Belcaster struck again when he made another three-pointer (his fourth on the night) from the right corner as Morton regained the lead at 59-58.
The Bulldogs took the lead for good, 60-59, on Johnson’s layup off an assist from Jackson with 1:43 remaining in the fourth quarter. RBHS made 6 of 10 free throws over the final 1:15 of the game to hold off Morton.
“Our guys are a bunch of gamers,” McCloskey said. “They love to play basketball and they compete when you really need to in the fourth quarter. That’s why we’re so successful.”
Chemistry, balance and focus trigger RBHS victory
RBHS employed a balanced attack offensively and showed tremendous poise in a raucous atmosphere throughout the first half. Jackson scored 10 points in the opening 16 minutes of play, while Jalen Clanton contributed eight points and Mark Smith and Henry Trelenberg had six points apiece.
“We stick together and play to the best of our ability,” Trelenberg said. “We try to block everything out. The focus is to just go play basketball which we have been doing for so long.
“Winning the first sectional means a lot to us. We wanted to make history so bad and we’ve been working all season towards it. We finally did it. We had confidence in each other that we could get this done.”
Added teammate Paul Sitkiewicz, a senior forward/center: “All four years in high school, and even before that, a lot of us knew each other in middle school. Seeing all of this come together is the most rewarding feeling in the world. We all know our roles on this team and our coaches are absolutely basketball geniuses. They come up with all this great stuff for us and tell us what to do on the court.”
Up 7-6 midway through the first quarter, RBHS went on a 10-4 run to establish a 17-10 lead after one quarter. The teams essentially traded baskets in the second quarter as the Bulldogs built a 35-26 halftime advantage.
Morton made its move in the third quarter by outscoring the Bulldogs 21-11 to take a 47-46 lead. Senior guard Dexter Dale made a tough layup in traffic off a pass Miguel Lopez with seven seconds left in the third quarter to give the Mustangs a one-point lead.
In the fourth quarter, Jackson’s playmaking ability coupled with clutch performances by Johnson and Clanton proved to be the difference. Smith also established a strong presence in the paint either scoring or gettting to the free throw line.
Seniors Kevin Fitzgerald and Sitkiewicz contributed also quality minutes off the bench against an extremely athletic and quick Morton squad.
Jackson led RBHS with 17 points and eight assists and Clanton had 15 points. Smith (14 points, 7 rebounds) and Johnson (12 points, 11 rebounds) also played well for the victors.
“We’re the first team in RB history to ever win a sectional. Wow, it’s an incredible feeling,” Clanton said. “All over Twitter the past three days, there were like 200 retweets and like 30 million people posting. Our fans are the greatest. The community really came out supported us tonight for we what we do. We want to say thanks to them for all the support. It’s a great night to be a Bulldog.”
Tony Haley paced the Mustangs with 18 points and Dale added 13 points. Harvard-bound Weisner Perez and Belcaster tallied 12 points apiece for Morton, which finished the season 17-12.
“We had a few shots that were in and out. The ball just wouldn’t fall for us in a couple of key moments,” Perez said. “We can live with ourselves because we fought hard until the end. I’m really proud to be a Mustang.
“I want to thank our fans support and the RB fans were great as well. The gym was jam packed. Obviously we wanted to win, but I’m thankful to finish my high school career playing in this kind of game. Our coach [Tony Martinucci] told us not to be sad but happy we went this far and experienced this tonight.”
RBHS faces Stevenson in the Chicago State Supersectional on Tuesday, March 17 at 7 p.m. The Patriots defeated Lake Forest 57-49 in the Waukegan Sectional final. Stevenson (27-3) is led by Jalen Brunson and Connor Cashaw, who have committed to Villanova and Rice, respectively.
Although Stevenson is a great team, with a third-place finish last season and second place in 2013 in the 4A state playoffs, the Bulldogs aren’t inclinced to back down to any team. Impressive postseason wins over Oak Park and River Forest, Curie and Morton have proven that point.
“[Playing Stevenson] is a great situation for us,” McCloskey said. “We don’t have anything to lose. We’re going to go in there and play loose. We respect them but we don’t really fear anybody. We think we’re a pretty good team as well.”