Like they have done all season, the "6th Man" fans came out en masse to support their beloved Bulldogs at the Chicago State Supersectional game against Stevenson. (Photo by Max Herman)

A slow start against a seasoned opponent on a big stage spelled trouble for the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball team at the Chicago State University Supersectional of the Class 4A playoffs.

The Bulldogs trailed by 16 points at the end of the first quarter en route to a 62-45 loss against Stevenson on Tuesday. The Patriots scored 10 of the game’s first 12 points and led 20-4 after one quarter. Although RBHS settled down in the second quarter, Stevenson still rolled into halftime with a commanding 39-18 lead.

RBHS outscored Stevenson 27-23 in the second half, highlighted by a five-minute stretch in the third quarter in which the Patriots went scoreless. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs’ improved play in the second half couldn’t overcome their shaky start.

“We needed to score a little bit more, especially in the first half, but I was proud of our guys,” RBHS coach Tom McCloskey said. “We never quit and we really fought with their guys in the second half.

Senior forward Sam Johnson and junior forward/center Mark Smith each scored a team-high nine points for the Bulldogs. Johnson also grabbed 13 rebounds. Like McCloskey, Johnson was proud of the Bulldogs’ competitive spirit against arguably the best team in the state.

“Just like all season, when we get down we never stop,” Johnson said. “We just keep playing together and try to get out of any hole that we’re in. We really stuck together and played hard all season. We obviously wanted to get a win today, but we still played really well.”

Stevenson, which advanced to the state tournament in Peoria for the third consecutive season, was led by Rice University recruit Connor Cashaw (24 points, 11 rebounds) and Villanova-bound Jalen Brunson (13 points, 5 assists). Brunson is a McDonald’s All-American and consensus top-25 player in the country. Talented sophomore Justin Smith contributed 10 points and 10 rebounds.

After finishing third last season and second in 2013 at the Class 4A state finals, the Patriots appear poised to capture an elusive state championship. The Patriots play Bolingbrook at 6:30 p.m. and Geneva takes on Normal ay 8:15 p.m. in Friday’s Class 4A state semifinals. The championship game is Saturday at 8:15 p.m. at Carver Arena in Peoria.

While the Bulldogs (28-4) won’t be playing for a state title this weekend, they still produced the best season in the program history. The team set a record for most wins in a single season and won a first-ever sectional championship. RBHS also dominated the Metro Suburban Conference with a 12-0 record en route to its 14th straight conference title, won its Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Tournament, and finished second at the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic over the Christmas break. The team also notched impressive victories over tough competition like Oak Park and River Forest (twice), Lyons Township, St. Ignatius (twice), St. Pius X (Houston, Tex.) and Curie.

Although RBHS won’t be competing in Peoria, senior guard Kevin Fitzgerald will take part in the IHSA State three-point contest at Carver Arena on Thursday, March 19. Fitzgerald, advanced by sinking 11 of 15 threes in the sectional competition.

All in all, it was a record-setting and historic season for the Bulldogs not to mention a lot of fun for the players, coached and entire RB community.

“These kids do it the right way,” said McCloskey. “Our seniors set the bar high. We made history. I’m really proud of these guys even though we came up a little bit short tonight.”

RBHS returns four starters next year including its superb backcourt of Daniko Jackson, Jalen Clanton and Henry Trelenberg. The 6-8 Smith will also be back next season to ensure the Bulldogs have a strong presence in the paint at both ends of the floor. Add the Bulldogs’ annual influx of talent from the sophomore squad and next season could be potentially even better than their remarkable 2014-15 campaign.

“Our four returning starters are going to look really good next year,” Johnson said. “They always work hard, and if they keep doing that then they’ll have success.”