By Jason Maholy
As a team with high expectations, Oak Lawn was not surprised by its 5-0 start to the season.
The Spartans made an early statement by defeating St. Laurence to take the title at the annual Spartan-Ram Classic over Thanksgiving weekend. Sami Osmani, the reigning South Suburban Conference Player of the Year, averaged 23 points per game and poured in 36 in the final to help Oak Lawn to their first championship in the tournament’s six-year history.
The Spartans finally got a taste of defeat last week in an SSC crossover against Hillcrest, falling at home to the hot-shooting Hawks, 72-65, on Dec. 5.
The atmosphere in the Spartan Gym felt much more like a late-season contest than the sixth game of the year, with both teams playing with sustained intensity for the entire 36 minutes. Even when Hillcrest spurted to a 15-point lead in the second quarter, there seemed to be no level of comfort on the Hawks’ bench or disenchantment on the Spartans’ side; and although the visitors maintained a lead between eight and 11 points for the majority of the second half, the game was highly competitive and the result in doubt until the final two minutes.
Spartans senior guard Trey Ward led all scorers with 25 points. Osmani, who spent much of the first half on the bench after collecting two early fouls, had a huge second half to finish with 23.
Jakobi Heady and Julius Rollins had 14 apiece to pace Hillcrest.
Osmani had 21 points after the break and was a key reason the Spartans were able to cut a 10-point halftime deficit to six midway through the fourth quarter. He was, however, quick to put the loss on his shoulders.
“Took some bad shots, didn’t control the pace,” he said. “They’re a decent team, but we’re older, we’re more experienced; we should have won that game. Put the blame on me. I’m the captain, I’ll take it; I’ll take the blame.”
Spartans coach Jason Rhodes more accurately chalked the loss up to the Hawks shooting the ball very well, the Spartans shots not falling with quite the same rate of success, and a few 50-50 balls that went to Hillcrest. Every time it seemed Oak Lawn was ready to make a run, the Hawks would hit a big shot.
“They hit some tough shots,” Rhodes said. “We didn’t expect them to knock down nine threes – or at least by the guys who wound up making them.”
Heady did most of his damage in the first half, hitting four shots from long range. The Hawks hit seven 3s in the opening 16 minutes.
“Those were all heavily contested 3s,” Rhodes said. “It wasn’t like we were giving them free looks. They were all contested, they just happened to shoot the ball well tonight. They played with confidence.”
The Spartans missing several shots from within a few feet of the basket and failing to come up with a few rebounds was the difference in the game, Rhodes said.
“In a game like that we have to be able to get to those, have to be able to execute,” he added. “When we have the chance to put the ball in the basket we have to do it. We can’t have those miscues against a good team.”
Overall, Rhodes was pleased with his team’s effort. He acknowledged the Spartans will lean on Osmani and Ward to provide the majority of the scoring, while the role players make their contributions.
“They’ve got to do that stuff for us on a nightly basis,” he said of his two senior guards. “But they’ve put the time in to be able to play when the lights shine bright, so I’m not surprised by anything they do. We’ve just got to have a couple guys step up and make shots.”
Not that the supporting cast of Scott Maloney, David Reyes, Kevin Swatek and Amjed Alramli – all seniors – didn’t contribute.
“We had guys making plays,” Rhodes added. “Maloney taking four charges, Reyes playing his butt off, Swatek doing the dirty work.
“It’s one loss in a long season. It’s too bad we had to play them so early, but we fought, which is the most important thing.”