HEADLINE: Reaching the heights in Palos
SUBHEAD: Spartans enjoy perfect week at expense of Astros, Knights
By Ken Karrson
Palos Heights is not foreign territory to Oak Lawn coach Jason Rhodes, a local resident, and last week it served as a favorite site for his Spartans as well.
How could it not be after Oak Lawn collected wins there against both of the city’s two high schools? While neither of the Spartans’ performances rated as a masterpiece, both allowed Oak Lawn to bank victories.
Foremost among the pair of successes was a 38-33 triumph over Shepard on Friday that inched the Spartans a little closer to the .500 mark in conference play. Before bagging that South Suburban Conference Red win, Oak Lawn knocked off Chicago Christian 49-45 on Tuesday.
“I’m not sure what it is, but we’ve been locked in on the road,” said Rhodes, whose club definitely preferred its home environs last season. “We had just as many fans as Christian, so that was a positive.”
The atmosphere was less electric on Friday, meaning the Spartans (8-11, 3-5) had to create some of their own energy versus the Astros. And a quick glance at Oak Lawn’s 33 percent shooting might indicate the visitors came up short in that regard.
But the Spartans remembered to bring their defense with them, which meant Shepard couldn’t take full advantage of Oak Lawn’s offensive somnambulism. That was especially harmful to the Astros at the outset when the Spartans didn’t score their first point until only about 3 ½ minutes remained in the opening period.
“They junked us big-time,” Rhodes said. “Shepard came out in a 2-3 zone. We haven’t seen a ton of it recently and it took us a long time to get in a rhythm, both in terms of personnel on the floor and trying to figure out what was going to be effective. We were not getting our bigs involved as much.”
The Astros exited the first frame up 9-4, but coach Tony Chiuccariello was nevertheless disappointed.
“We tried to cheat to their shooters and I thought we played pretty good defense,” Chiuccariello said. “They were struggling to put the ball in the basket. You’d like to see us pull away for a more comfortable lead when the other team doesn’t score for four-plus minutes.”
That’s difficult to do, though, when your team is only connecting at a 40 percent clip. Shepard (4-16, 0-9) was actually sharp from two-point range (62 percent), but that good work was undone by a nightmarish 1-of-14 showing from 3-point range.
Even more debilitating was an ability to keep Oak Lawn away from the offensive glass. The Spartans extended 12 possessions with rebounds and that amounted to 17 second-chance points, none more gut-wrenching to the Astros than the three that materialized from a Jimmy Wiltzius long ball midway through the final quarter.
What made Wiltzius’s 3-pointer a death blow of sorts was that it followed a third offensive board and broke a 31-all tie. Moreover, it drained about 40 seconds off the clock.
“You see their shoulders slump after something like that,” Rhodes said. “That’s demoralizing.”
He got no argument from his coaching counterpart on that point.
“That was the biggest possession of the game,” Chiuccariello said. “It’s harder to box out when you’re playing zone. To me, it all came down to the boards and that one play was a microcosm.
“It’s a big dagger and big momentum play, and it felt like an eternity [passed]. It was a huge shot that changes your thought processes on what you’re going to be able to do.”
Shepard missed a 3 on its next trip down the floor, Oak Lawn hit a layup and then Kyrun Heard sank a couple free throws to bring the Astros within a deuce. That was as close as Shepard -- which once led 31-30 following a series of layups, including two in transition -- would get, however.
Josh Prince supplied the Spartans with a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds, but no one else managed more than six points. Odeh Alshaikh did pull down eight rebounds and Oak Lawn also prospered because of its level of play without the ball.
“If the defense wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have been in [either of] these last two games,” Rhodes said. “A couple things we’ve started to do is take charges and also do a better job of rotating much more effectively. That’s something that comes with practice, but it has a cumulative effect because guys start trusting each other.”
Kyle Longfield was the principal figure for Shepard (4-16, 0-9) in defeat as he totaled 10 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Like Prince was for Oak Lawn, Longfield flew solo in regard to double-digit scoring.
Oak Lawn 49
Chicago Christian 45
Prince hit five baskets and two free throws in the first quarter last Tuesday, an outburst Rhodes loved seeing but one that only staked the Spartans to a two-point lead over the Knights by the break. And when Oak Lawn netted just four points over the next eight minutes, that slim edge got transferred over to Chicago Christian.
The bad news for the Spartans didn’t immediately end there. The Knights tallied the first six points of the third quarter to go up by seven and put Oak Lawn on the ropes.
“They didn’t show us anything we hadn’t prepared for, but they’re an active group,” Rhodes said. “[Trevor] Wolterink gave us some trouble in the paint, [Daylon] Washington played outstanding and [Bradford] Fitzpatrick is a great rebounder and pretty good defender and passer.”
Rhodes said Christian’s game plan was to attack the Spartans inside, but Oak Lawn thwarted that somewhat by applying pressure and making it difficult for the Knights to execute their half-court sets.
“In games like this it sometimes comes down to little things,” Rhodes said. “I thought maybe we out-toughed them a little bit.”
Rashad Johnson stepped forward offensively for the Spartans by netting 13 points, including three 3-point baskets, two of which were part of Oak Lawn’s 15-point fourth-period eruption. He also sank two free throws with nine seconds to go to lock up the victory.
Heard from as well were Prince (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Joe Cosenza, whose steal of an inbounds pass ended Christian’s last possession. Cosenza finished with seven points and buried a long ball in the fourth quarter the expunged a two-point deficit and put the Spartans ahead for good. Alshaikh (10 rebounds) was again an interior force.
Wolterink and Washington both poured in 16 points to pace the Knights and the former also hauled in 11 rebounds.
“I think I’ve got to get Oak Lawn off the schedule [because] the games are just ugly,” Christian coach Kevin Pittman joked. “We just seem to bring out the worst in each other.
“There was no flow to the game. It was painful to coach and I’m sure it was painful to watch. It just seemed like a total blah game.”
Chicago Christian 51
Things were much better for the Knights on Friday as they avenged a last-second loss to the Rebels in December by ringing up an 18-point road win. With the victory Christian stayed within a game of rival Illiana Christian in the Metro Suburban Conference East standings.
The two old foes meet up Friday night in Lansing.
The difference for the Knights (9-12, 5-2) in their rematch with Ridgewood is that Fitzpatrick and Jay Spencer played lock-down defense on the Rebels’ two main scoring threats. After getting torched for 40 points by the duo previously, Christian surrendered just two between them.
“Defensively, we just set the tone so nicely in the first quarter,” Pittman said. “We didn’t want to leave open lanes or let [Dino] DeVivo just catch and shoot and we followed the plan almost to perfection. The concentration was there and the effort was there.”
Pittman had rightly figured no one else on Ridgewood’s roster could adequately pick up the slack if the Rebels’ big two were hamstrung. Ridgewood managed only 13 first-half points and found itself in arrears by 11 after 16 minutes.
While the Knights’ 35 percent shooting was nothing special, it easily surpassed the Rebels’ 10-of-42 display from the field. Ridgewood also committed six more turnovers and got out-rebounded 39-26.
Wolterink had 18 points for Christian, Washington tossed in 16 and Fitzpatrick keyed the rebounding exhibition with 11 boards.
Immaculate Conception 50
Chicago Christian 38
Just when Pittman thought the Knights had raised their performance bar, their namesakes from Immaculate Conception pulled it down.
The second quarter was Christian’s biggest enemy as it got outscored 17-4. Down by nine at halftime, the Knights were never able to put a lot of heat on IC after that. Washington’s three-point play had Christian within 43-36 midway through the final frame, but three offensive rebounds on one possession enabled the hosts to respond with a bucket of their own.
The boys’ varsity game was part of a daylong series of basketball activities in Elmhurst. Pittman speculated his guys might have found that to be draining but added that “you make your own breaks and we didn’t make them in this game. At this point of the season we should be able to figure things out.”
Washington (11 points), Spencer (nine points, seven rebounds) and Wolterink (nine points) were Christian’s top guns. Spencer’s appearance in the lineup was actually a very pleasant surprise for Pittman, who learned his player had been in an automobile accident earlier in which the car’s airbags deployed.
Lincoln-Way Central 75
Perhaps more than any other Chicagoland-area prep basketball coach, Knights boss Bob Curran is a master at revising his strategies on the fly.
Once known as a man who had no qualms about bringing a game’s pace to a virtual standstill, Curran has favored a much more rapid pace of late. Last Tuesday against the Astros he borrowed a page from Eisenhower by unleashing full-court pressure on Shepard, something Chiuccariello said he didn’t see coming.
“They were trapping continuously and we were down 12-1 before the blink of an eye,” Chiuccariello said. “They blitzed us and we were surprised. [Making changes] within the same season -- it’s pretty impressive he can do that.”
The Astros trailed 22-8 after one quarter, and with a field-goal percentage of just 38 percent working for them a rally would be difficult. Lincoln-Way Central pretty much made it impossible by building its edge to 20 by halftime.
The Knights canned 50 percent of their shots from the floor and all but two of their 15 free throws. One of those charity tosses hit the front and back of the rim and backboard before falling into the cylinder, prompting Chiuccariello to proclaim to his assistant, “It’s just one of those nights.”
“We try to hold teams inside 40 percent [on field-goal attempts],” Chiuccariello said. “That’s the magic number if you’re functioning [properly] on offense.”
Longfield continued his stellar play with a double-double of 11 points and 16 rebounds, plus six assists, three blocks and a charge taken. Kenny Gorski added 10 and three other players tallied at least in eight in what ranked as one Shepard’s most balanced attacks of the season, even though it went for naught.
“We’re in a rough patch and just trying to find a way to break through,” Chiuccariello said. “It’s like a rebuilding every Saturday morning and it’s hard on them. We need to get a breakthrough.”
The Astros had two chances for one this week as they played Universal and Peotone in nonconference affairs on Monday and Tuesday.
Oak Lawn 38
Oak Lawn Scoring: Prince 17, Wiltzius 6, Alshaikh 5, Cosenza 3, Khater 3, Johnson 2, Nelson 2. Rebounds: Prince 10, Alshaikh 8. Assists: Cosenza 3. Steals: Alshaikh 2.
Shepard Scoring: Longfield 10, Watson 7, Gorski 6, Smith 6, Heard 2, Humphrey 2. Rebounds: Longfield 8. Assists: Heard 2, Longfield 2. Blocks: Longfield 2.
Oak Lawn 49
Chicago Christian 45
Oak Lawn Scoring: Prince 18, Johnson 13, Cosenza 7, Nelson 5, Alshaikh 3, Wiltzius 3. Rebounds: Alshaikh 10, Prince 10. Assists: Alshaikh 4. Steals: Alshaikh 2.
Chicago Christian Scoring: Washington 16, Wolterink 16, Spencer 9, Fitzpatrick 2, Parker 2. Rebounds: Washington 11. Assists: Fitzpatrick 2, Spencer 2, Wolterink 2.
Chicago Christian 51
Chicago Christian Scoring: Wolterink 18, Washington 15, Parker 6, Spencer 4, Winchester 4, Decker 2, Fitzpatrick 2. Rebounds: Fitzpatrick 11. Assists: Parker 3, Washington 3. Steals: Washington 3. Blocks: Fitzpatrick 2, Spencer 2.
Immaculate Conception 50
Chicago Christian 38
Chicago Christian Scoring: Washington 11, Spencer 9, Wolterink 9, Parker 3, Decker 2, Fitzpatrick 2, Mayberry 2. Rebounds: Spencer 7. Assists: Parker 3. Steals: Fitzpatrick 2.
Shepard Scoring: Longfield 11, Gorski 10, Watson 9, Haxel 8, Heard 8, Humphrey 4, Ashkar 2, Smith 2. Rebounds: Longfield 16. Assists: Longfield 6. Blocks: Longfield 3.