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OPRF rebounds in a big way

Bounces back from Montini loss with romp over Kenwood

By Matt Le Cren
 
LOMBARD – Oak Park and River Forest entered the prestigious Montini Christmas Tournament as the only team in the 16-team field with a losing record.
 
Not much was expected of the Huskies, especially considering they opened the tournament against top-seeded and unbeaten Montini, which is currently ranked 20th in the nation by MaxPreps.
 
Not surprisingly, Oak Park and River Forest fell 66-29 on Saturday.
 
In past years, such a loss would have sent the Huskies reeling, but not this time.
 
On Monday, the 16th-seeded Huskies stunned ninth-seeded Kenwood 61-38 to advance to Tuesday’s consolation semifinals, where they will face 12th-seed Bolingbrook.
 
“(Against Montini) we didn’t play like we could play,” OPRF senior guard Madison Siler said. “I feel like today we stepped up and were ready to play. As the season goes on, we learn how to play a little bit better together.”
 
With only four seniors, two of whom start, the Huskies (5-7) began the season 0-5 but have since won five of their last seven games. The only losses were to Montini and defending Class 4A state champion Benet (12-1), which trailed OPRF at halftime two weeks ago.
 
Despite the minimal expectations, the Huskies are serious about making some noise at Montini.
 
“I love it (the competition),” Siler said. “The best thing about this is it is a hard tournament.
 
“We’re here for upsets. We want to upset the better teams because we’re actually a really good team. We got off to a really rough start because we’re so young, but we’ve come together and we’re ready to win.
 
“We’re going to take that mentality and what we do here into conference.”
 
If Monday’s performance against Kenwood (11-4) is any indication, the Huskies could be a force in the New Year.
 
In the win, Siler drained five three-pointers to lead all scorers with a season-high 19 points. Senior center Crystal Corr contriuted 16 points, and junior point guard Molly Cullinane added 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
 
Kenwood led by a basket twice in the early going before Siler scored on a putback and sophomore Maeve Nelson converted a reverse layup off a feed from junior Blair Ripley to put the Huskies in front to stay.
 
That was the start of a 10-2 run that saw Siler sink a pair of threes and Ripley score on a drive as the Huskies grabbed a 14-6 lead.
 
A 9-0 OPRF run stretched the advantage to 26-11 and forced Kenwood to call timeout.
 
After the teams traded baskets, Kenwood ripped off the next 14 points to pull within 28-27 before OPRF's Corr stopped the bleeding with a pair of free throws with 41.7 seconds left in the half. The Huskies went to the locker room up 30-27.
 
The momentum seemed to belong to Kenwood, which is the more experienced team, but OPRF coach J.P. Coughlin wasn’t worried.
 
“The coaching instinct is come yell at them (at halftime), and I didn’t raise my voice past barely a whisper -- just talked about what we have to do differently, how we were successful,” Coughlin said. “They are such a strong, mature, smart group of young women that they didn’t have to be yelled at. They knew they had to tighten things up and they did.
 
“That’s how this group is always. Makes it really enjoyable to coach. I’m really happy with them.”
 
If the first half was surprising to the fans, the third quarter was a shocker. Rather than wilt under the pressure, the Huskies came out on fire and outscored Kenwood 17-2 in the third quarter.
 
Cullinane got things started by passing to Siler for a three and two possessions later Siler connected again from downtown.
 
After Alyssa Moore scored on a baseline drive for Kenwood, OPRF went on a 13-0 run capped by a steal and two free throws by Ahsha Spencer that made it 49-29 early in the fourth quarter.
 
“Cooler heads prevailed, and we knew what we needed to do,” Siler said. “We came into the locker room and when you let a team go on a run like that and you still have the lead, we knew we never wanted to trail.”
 
They didn’t, playing a superb second half that featured only two turnovers even though the reserves handled the chores for the final four minutes. The Huskies had only eight turnovers overall, a credit to the ballhandling of the 5-foot-3 Cullinane, who had five points, two steals and two assists in the decisive third quarter, and the willingness of players like the 6-1 Ripley to dive on the floor for loose balls.
 
“We really wanted to win this game,” said Ripley, who finished with five points, six rebounds and three assists. “We came in with a lot more confidence. We’re here to prove what we can do.”
 
Nelson, the team’s best all-around athlete whose best days are ahead of her, had two points, seven rebounds and two assists for the Huskies, who also got five points and four boards from Carrington McGowan and four points from Spencer.
 
Regardless of how the Huskies do in their last two games of the tournament, Coughlin firmly believes his squad will emerge better than it entered.
 
“Even losing by 37 to Montini, that’s one of the best teams in the country, so just to get the opportunity to compete and see what’s out there always helps at playoff time,” Coughlin said. “There’s nothing we haven’t seen come playoffs because we’ll play anybody.”
 
 
Starting lineups
 
Oak Park and River Forest
 
G Molly Cullinane
G Madison Siler
G Maeve Nelson
F Blair Ripley
C Crystal Corr
 
Kenwood
 
G Trsheia Page
G Shadrian McDaniel
G Sharese Scott
F Alyssa Moore
F Jonaie Johnson
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