No place like home

  • Written by Ken Karson

Spartans’ surge inches them past Mustangs

Dorothy and Toto weren’t the only ones who longed to be home.
Oak Lawn basketball players have enjoyed performing in front of Spartans fans this winter, so much so that opponents have found road wins increasingly difficult to come by. Evergreen Park was the latest foe to discover the magic Oak Lawn weaves on its own floor.
When the two South Suburban Conference Red neighbors met Friday night in a regular-season finale, the Mustangs were in control much of the way. A slew of first-half free throws boosted them into a nine-point lead by intermission, and Evergreen was still ahead by that same margin when the clock showed less than five minutes remaining in the contest.
But just when an unfavorable outcome seemed in the offing for the home team, it rallied. The Spartans allowed only two Mustangs field goals over the final 4:40, although Jordan Brown’s hoop at the 51-second mark did give Evergreen a 63-60 lead.

However, Mitch Swatek then played the hero’s role for Oak Lawn. After sinking 6-of-7 free throws in the period, the senior hit a shot with 10 seconds left that inched the Spartans ahead by one.
When the Mustangs - who had turned the ball over right before that — couldn’t respond to Swatek’s bucket, they found themselves on the short end of a 64-63 score.
“Boy, we didn’t play well, but we found a way to win,” Oak Lawn coach Jason Rhodes said. “We really had no business winning that game, to be honest.”
So why did they? Besides Swatek’s 13-of-15 exhibition at the line and career-high 25 points, perhaps the most important thing the Spartans (11-14, 5-8) had going for them was a typically involved home crowd.
“Our fans created a great atmosphere, and for the most part they’ve been good-spirited,” Rhodes said. “We were fortunate to have a lot of our conference games near the end [of the schedule] at home.”
Even Rhodes’ coaching counterpart gave props to the Oak Lawn faithful for making their presence felt in a noticeable manner.
“If I wasn’t working it, I’d be in the stands out there,” Evergreen boss Pat Flannigan said. “Oak Lawn threw a [heck] of a party. It was a packed house and they were into it.”
Out of it for the Mustangs for most of the second half was Jacquet McClendon. The Evergreen senior got tagged with a second technical foul early in the third quarter and had to leave the court.
While Flannigan agreed with the first of those calls, he felt McClendon was unfairly penalized after making a steal and dunk. Following the basket, McClendon was searching out his defensive assignment and, according to Flannigan, officials misinterpreted McClendon’s stare for an act of taunting.
“I can see what the official saw, but you’ve got to understand the situation,” Flannigan said. “If high school kids can’t get excited after a dunk, then we’re in the wrong profession.
“It seemed to me to be a decision made at halftime. If I did that in the classroom, held a grudge, it’d be a long day.”
Flannigan said the Mustangs were undeniably harmed by the removal of “one of the best athletes at our school,” but he also didn’t hesitate to credit the Spartans for hanging tough in the face of adversity. And, in Rhodes’ opinion, Oak Lawn wasn’t spared some bad calls of its own — as evidence, he pointed to Evergreen’s 21 made free throws in the opening half.
“It was just weird,” Rhodes said. “We had five kids with two fouls at the end of the first half - I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before. We just had a hard time getting into a rhythm, both because of the whistles and [the Mustangs’] zone defense [that] gave us some trouble.”
After finding themselves locked in a 17-all tie at the beginning of the second quarter, Oak Lawn suddenly slipped in arrears by double digits as a quartet of Evergreen players scored while the Spartans were missing four shots and turning the ball over on four other possessions. Tyler Sorbellini led the Mustangs’ charge with a basket and two free throws.
Behind David Stacy’s 3-pointer and field goal, the Spartans roared back to within 30-28, only to see Evergreen (13-13, 3-10) answer with a 7-0 run. Tony Weathersby delivered a bucket and the Mustangs also made good on five charity tosses.
Weathersby’s 3-pointer capped an opening flurry by Evergreen in the third frame, and the visitors were ahead 46-34 three minutes into the session. It was 49-39 after an Issac Matthews foul shot at the 2:38 mark, but the Mustangs went scoreless for the remainder of the period and Oak Lawn drew within four on two Swatek baskets and a pair of free throws.
“I was so happy for him,” Rhodes said of Swatek. “He’s our glue guy — he rebounds, distributes, moves well without the ball [and] guards the other team’s best player. But I thought he was very aggressive offensively in this game.”
Stacy supported Swatek with 21 points and eight rebounds, while Josh Prince gave the Spartans a third double-digit scorer with 12 points. He augmented his offense with team-best totals of nine rebounds and five assists.
Oak Lawn clicked on only 39 percent of its field-goal tries - including just 4-of-20 from 3-point range — but it grabbed 10 offensive rebounds and set up all but five of its 19 buckets with an assist. The Spartans went 22-of-28 at the foul line.
“I think we won more of the 50-50 balls,” Rhodes said. “Balls that were knocked around, we got to them.”
“I thought we had it put away,” Flannigan said. “It’s hard to put your finger on it. It was a bunch of little errors, things you can’t quite control, [like] missing a layup, making a pass we don’t normally make or a turnover. We had about six or seven kids that did little things like that.
“We didn’t get a shot off [before time ran out] — those are the killers. You want to end it with the ball at the rim, not lying on the floor.”
Weathersby was the Mustangs’ offset to Swatek as he, too, produced 25 points, to go along with six rebounds and three steals. Matthews was Evergreen’s only other double-figure man as he recorded 10 points. He also had five assists and three steals.
The Mustangs, who met Lindblom this past Tuesday in a semifinal contest within the Class 3A St. Laurence Regional, sank 43 percent of their field-goal attempts and shot 78 percent at the line.
Oak Lawn 51
Lindblom 48
The Spartans were able to triumph on their own Senior Night, but they kept the Eagles from doing likewise last Tuesday. Oak Lawn gained a win while playing in a pint-sized gymnasium.
“It was a bandbox - similar to Mt. Carmel’s old gym, only smaller,” Rhodes said. “On sideline-inbounds plays, you were a foot in bounds. They had a good crowd and you couldn’t hear each other or hear play calls.
“[But] it was cool. I like to take our kids out of their comfort zone, and the kids really enjoyed going over there and playing.”
A 5 p.m. varsity game time added to the strangeness of the day — “There was sunlight streaming through the windows when we started,” Rhodes said — but the Spartans dealt with the conditions with relatively little trouble. They could never shake Lindblom, but a slight rebounding edge and five more successful charity tosses were enough to push Oak Lawn over the top.
Swatek was again the Spartans’ ringleader with 16 points, which included a 7-of-8 effort from the stripe, and five rebounds. Joe Cosenza (10 points), Prince (six points, eight rebounds), Stacy (six points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocks) and Nate Jones (six points) all contributed as well.
Oak Lawn played Kenwood Academy, Rhodes’ former team, this past Monday in the Class 4A Oak Lawn Regional.
“I think that school is a special place,” Rhodes said of Kenwood. “I still follow what they do, but it’ll be weird to play [against] them.”
Evergreen Park 17 22 10 14 - 63
Oak Lawn 15 15 15 19 - 64
Evergreen Park Scoring: Weathersby 25, Matthews 10, Cheatham 7, Sorbellini 6, Oladejo 5, Brown 4, McClendon 4, Moran 2. Rebounds: Weathersby 6. Assists: Matthews 5. Steals: Matthews 3, Weathersby 3.
Oak Lawn Scoring: Swatek 25, Stacy 21, Prince 12, Jones 6. Rebounds: Prince 9, Stacy 8. Assists: Prince 4.

Oak Lawn 11 15 9 16 - 51
Lindblom 15 13 7 13 - 48
Oak Lawn Scoring: Swatek 16, Cosenza 10, Jones 6, Prince 6, Stacy 6, Samra 4, Nelson 3. Rebounds: Prince 8, Stacy 7. Assists: Stacy 5. Steals: Stacy 3. Blocks: Stacy 3.