By Jason Maholy
Oak Lawn entered last week’s matchup with Lindblom scuffling, having lost two straight games and six of its last eight to dampen what had been an encouraging first half of the season.
The Eagles, meanwhile, hadn’t lost in more than two months during an 18-game winning streak, and had risen into the Top 10 in the AP’s Class 3A rankings.
But whether it was the energy provided by a packed home gym on Paint the Gym Purple Night, getting all five starters back on the court, or having learned a few lessons from tough losses to some solid teams, the Spartans put together one of their best performances of the season in a 60-47 win Feb. 1.
Lindblom hadn’t lost since Nov. 30.
“We played really well,” said Oak Lawn coach Jason Rodes. “Lindblom’s a good team. Watching them on film, I was kind of thinking I wish we played like this, the way they share the basketball, and very unselfish. Then we come out tonight and play the same way.”
Junior guard Sami Osmani led the Spartans with 20 points and pulled down six rebounds, and fellow backcourt mate Trey Ward had 19 points and six assists. Kevin Swatek had nine points and eight rebounds, and David Reyes had eight points and frustrated the Eagles’ Shamar Pumphrey with a hard-nosed defensive effort.
The frustration wasn’t limited to Pumphrey. With the clock winding down and Lindblom’s win streak coming to an end, a scuffle broke out with 16 seconds remaining in the game. With the result not in any doubt, the officiating crew immediately ended the game and directed both teams to leave the court.
Rhodes said his guys were pumped up to play against a ranked opponent, and in front of one of the largest crowds the Spartans will see at home this season. The Paint the Gym Purple event – basketball games combined with a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society – draws a crowd rivaled only by games against Richards and Evergreen Park.
“This is a great environment,” Rhodes said. “This is always a highlight of the season for our team.”
“We challenged them this week. This was an opportunity to do something special and beat a Top 25 team, and we responded. We had a really good practice yesterday and I thought we’d be ready to play today and we were.”
Oak Lawn started fast, jumping out to a 10-2 lead midway through the first quarter, and led 31-28 at halftime. Lindblom closed to within a point at 38-37, but that would be the closest they would get. The Spartans maintained their composure and looked like a veteran squad as they thwarted the Eagle’s attempts to press and double team in the backcourt.
Oak Lawn ended the game with an 18-8 run, a finish that pleased Rhodes.
“They turned up the pressure in the third, cut it to one and we responded,” he said. “We were excellent handling the basketball late when they’re doubling and trapping. We played smart.”
The going had been tough for the Spartans, who were coming off consecutive losses to Evergreen Park and Lincoln-Way Central, and had since the start lost games to South Suburban Conference foes Lemont, Oak Forest, Hillcrest and Richards. Oak Forest and Richards entered this week 8-2 in conference play, while Hillcrest was unbeaten at 9-0.
Rhodes chalked up the recent struggles to a tough stretch of the schedule, the “dog days” of the midway point of the season, and playing without two starters against Evergreen Park and one against Lincoln-Way Central.
“All those teams are quality teams,” Rhodes said. “But we had some conversations this week that were helpful. I don’t know if it led to this directly, but we wanted to make sure we ended the season on a positive note.
The Spartans have no seniors on their roster. All five starters are juniors, and Osmani and Ward have played on varsity since their freshman seasons.
“All these kids are coming back next year, and so it would be easy to say, ‘We’ll get them next year,’” Rhodes said. “But we challenged them to not do that, don’t throw away these least seven regular season games. Let’s not plateau, let’s make sure we keep getting better.”
Osmani was the catalyst against Lindblom. Whether driving fearlessly to the rim or hitting a 3-pointer while being fouled and completing the four-point play, he seemed to be in the middle of every big moment.
“He and Trey are always in the gym, so nothing that they’re able to do on the floor surprises me because they put the work in,” Rhodes said.
Swatek was also a major factor, as the Eagles’ attention on Osmani and Ward freed him up inside, and he took full advantage.
“He has really made a ton of improvement on both ends of the floor,” Rhodes said. “I thought he was the difference in the game early, finishing around the rim. He was very patient, throwing pump fakes, getting them in the air, taking his time around the basket. We knew they would double team (Osmani) off ball screens, and we tried to exploit that and found him open inside, and he was the beneficiary.
“When Kevin scores at the rim and David Reyes makes threes, we’re pretty tough.”