By James Kay
You might have had the weekend of Thanksgiving off, but Oak Park and River Forest and Riverside Brookfield high schools spent Nov. 29 sparring in the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic.
RBHS' Paul Zilinskas tallied 23 points and went 5-8 from 3-point range. Jamir Truman established himself as a force in the paint and ended the game with 14 points. OPRF's Isaiah Barnes poured in 25 points and his teammate Josh Smith contributed 23. Zilinskas, Truman and Barnes earned all-tournament team honors.
"I am definitely pleased with where we are at," said head coach Mike Reingruber. "We had some really good moments throughout the four games we played, and a lot to be optimistic about. We have a lot of respect for that OPRF program but none of the preseason hype fazed our kids, luckily. We beat a really good team and I am glad we seized the opportunity there."
Before the season, Reingruber told the Landmark that the team would rely on hitting from beyond the arc, which is exactly what they did on Nov. 29.
In the first quarter, RBHS came out firing from the perimeter and Zilinskas ended the quarter with a contested three over OPRF's Rashaad Trice in the corner as time expired to give the Bulldogs a 21-15 lead. With a 6-point lead heading into the second quarter, it was clear that RB was feeding off the energy of the rambunctious home crowd, propelling their momentum.
"I think we were clicking on all cylinders, especially at the end of the first half," said Reingruber. "We had 30 points off the bench, which is kind of unheard of in high school. We have eight guys who know how to put the ball in the basket, and they all were able to do that on Friday."
The Bulldogs started to pull away at the 4:15 mark when Zilinskas hit another three to increase the Huskies' deficit to 11. Over the last four minutes of the half, RB kept pushing the ball down the floor and finding the open man from deep. OPRF's Josh Smith halted the momentum with a coast-to-coast transition layup that resulted in a 3-point play to make the score 41-29.
However, RBHS wing John Hanley scored eight points in two minutes and gave the Bulldogs a 52-35 lead going into halftime.
OPRF didn't go away in the second half.
The Huskies forced RBHS to turn the ball over during the last six minutes of the third quarter by using a full-court press that sparked their comeback.
After Barnes struggled to get anything going in the first half, one RBHS fan, who trash-talked OPRF's squad on the sideline throughout the event, yelled, "Let Barnes shoot! He can't hit anything!"
Spurred perhaps by that remark, Barnes took over and had two monster dunks, and went 4-4 from midrange and 3-point range in a four-minute span. After sophomore guard Demetrius Dortch hit a contact layup and Barnes threw a full-court outlet pass to Smith for a lay-in, the Huskies made it a one-possession game after Barnes brushed off his defender and buried another midrange shot.
"The guys showed tremendous fight being down [more than 20] points," said Maloney. "We did that in 6-8 minutes. I think that is a testament to the heart these guys play with and that when we clamp down, we are going to be tough to beat."
With six minutes left to play and the score 68-66 in favor of the Bulldogs, Reingruber called a timeout to regroup his team.
"We just had to calm them down more than anything," said Reingruber. "Basketball is a game of runs and that was theirs. I told them to move onto the next play, and it was as simple as that."
The Huskies' comeback efforts were stunted after the timeout when RBHS guard Ryan Gaynor hit back-to-back transition threes to give his team a 74-66 lead. Both teams traded baskets the rest of the way and the duel ended in an 88-79 RB win.
RB followed the upset over Oak Park up with a 57-49 win over Kenwood. They placed second in the tournament. St. Rita won the 8-team tourney.