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Lyons tops upstart OPRF
to share conference title

Hosts earn spot in West Suburban Conference title game

By Matt LeCren

 

LA GRANGE – Oak Park and River Forest wanted it all and wanted it now.

 

The Huskies went into Friday night’s showdown with host Lyons already having secured a share of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division championship.
But their goal was to win the title outright which required a win over the defending champion Lions.
 
They didn’t get it.
 
Sophomore Sidney Bugaieski tallied a game-high 17 points and Lyons used its typically stingy defense to knock off the Huskies 44-30 to finish in a first-place tie with OPRF.
 
It was just the third conference title in the past 25 years for the Huskies (13-13, 9-3), who last won a share of the title in 2011. But it was Lyons (18-5, 9-3) which earned a berth in Wednesday’s West Suburban Conference title game by virtue of a better head-to-head point differential with OPRF, which edged the Lions 43-39 in the first meeting on Jan. 16.
 
“They deserve it,” OPRF coach J.P. Coughlin said. “They were clearly the better team tonight.
 
“We were really clawing to get anything going. I think we’re the two best defensive teams in the conference by far, and it was a defensive game.”
 
Both teams have played – and won – plenty of low-scoring games this season. Lyons has held 11 opponents to 35 points or less, although it didn’t appear that would be the case in the early going of this game.
 
The Huskies, who came in riding a four-game winning streak, scored the first six points of the game on two 3-pointers from senior guard Madison Siler, who had eight points in the first five minutes, including a layup on a backdoor cut off a pass from sophomore Maeve Nelson. The flurry of points gave the visitors a 9-2 lead.
 
But Bugaieski heated up and she and her teammates, particularly senior guard Nina Scaramella, cooled off Siler, who scored just three of her team-high 11 points after that.
 
Bugaieski scored the next five points for Lyons, which nevertheless trailed 15-8 after Oak Park and River Forest’s Molly Cullinane fed Crystal Corr for an inside basket at the 6:55 mark of the second quarter.
 
That proved to be the high-water mark for the Huskies, who mustered only three baskets the rest of the way.
 
Lyons' Bugaieski tallied 11 of her points in the first half, including three of her four 3-pointers, one of which beat the buzzer to complete a 14-1 run for a 22-16 halftime cushion.
 
“Sid’s a prodigy,” said Lyons senior forward Frannie Corrigan, who had five points and led all players with nine rebounds and three steals. “Sidney has really stepped up a lot, especially when some players haven’t been playing as well as they would like to, so I think that has been such a big aspect. It’s overall helped our team grow in a way.”
 
Bugaieski’s play was a stabilizing influence to the Lions, who played without Illinois State signee Corrigan and 6-foot-2 senior center Emily Pender for long stretches this winter.
 
Pender had ACL surgery in the off-season and didn’t play until early January. Corrigan missed four weeks after undergoing surgery for a broken wrist. The two powerhouses didn’t play together until Jan. 20, when the Lions routed Riverside-Brookfield 60-8.
 
“I think, in a way, injuries just inspired us more to go out there and play for (the injured players) and really get motivated to play hard in their place,” Bugaieski said.
 
The 6-foot Corrigan didn’t play in the first meeting, so her presence added to the length of the formidable front line that also includes 5-foot-10 junior forward Claire Purcell. That trio prevented the Huskies from getting inside with any regularity, while Scaramella helped chase Siler around on the perimeter.
 
“Defensively coach (Paul Krick) talked about it,” Bugaieski said. “We looked at what we did wrong last game, and we came out and tried to fix errors defensively and with turnovers.”
 
The Lions succeeded. They turned the ball over only nine times after the first quarter while holding the Huskies to 9-for-33 shooting. Siler opened the second half with a 3-pointer but was held to just one shot after that.
 
“We had more (turnovers) than we should have the first time we played them, but (the key) also was kind of shutting down their shooters as well,” Corrigan said. “Nina did a great job on (Siler), who even still had some deep threes but we still shut her down the second half I felt like. So that was definitely a huge reason why we won the game.”
 
Siler agreed.
 
“They started shadow-guarding me, where the girl would not leave me,” Siler said. “She doesn’t play help defense or anything, which going into the game we knew was going to happen.
 
“We tried figuring out ways to get around it, and I just couldn’t get it going. I missed some shots I should have made, and we’ve got to work on getting open as a team.”
 
Bugaieski had no trouble getting open as she went 6-for-8 from the floor, including a trey that completed a 10-0 run that boosted the Lyons lead to 32-19.
 
Point guard Molly Cullinane tried to rally the Huskies, sinking a pair of threes late in the third quarter. So did Corr, who split two pairs of free throws to cut the deficit to 34-27 with 7:01 left in the fourth quarter.
 
But Pender scored on a putback of her own miss and Purcell added two free throws at the 5:41 mark that prevented the Huskies from getting closer than nine points the rest of the way.
 
Oak Park and River Forest also hurt itself, particularly at the free throw line where the Huskies made just 7-of-16 attempts. They were also hampered by the foul trouble of junior forward Blair Ripley, who played sparingly and was held to two points, five rebounds and two assists.
 
“Our free throw shooting has been great all year, and it was not tonight,” Coughlin said. “I can’t count that high how many we missed. We’ve been a high 60s, low 70s team all year, and we weren’t tonight.
 
“We missed some shots we normally make but against length like this it’s tough. They were pretty well-prepared.”
 
Scaramella and Pender both finished with seven points for Lyons which has won six straight. Purcell had four points, as did sophomore Kaelen Lee, who added five assists and two steals off the bench.
 
For Oak Park and River Forest, Cullinane scored six points and Corr four to go with seven rebounds for the Huskies. No other player had more than one basket.
 
Despite the loss, OPRF can pat themselves on the back for winning a title which no one, even Coughlin, thought was possible.
 
“Of course we’re very disappointed,” Siler said. “We did not enjoy hearing their screams and happiness because we wanted (the title) to ourselves.
 
“We wanted it so badly, but we just realized that we have to be proud of ourselves, and we can’t be down on ourselves as a team, because we still have the crossover game on Tuesday, and we still have the playoffs.
 
“(The title) really means a lot to us. This is only the third time in 25 years we’ve been conference champs. Our names still go on the wall.”
 
So how did a team that lost several high profile players from a more talented squad that went 14-18 last season overcome a 0-5 start and exceed expectations so dramatically?
 
“Believing in each other and working together,” Coughlin said. “They listen. I haven’t had a group listen like this before.
 
“Even today we’d have a timeout, and I’d tell them to do something and they’d do it. It didn’t go in, but it was exactly what we wanted to do.”
 
The Huskies don’t have any flashy offensive players but they play scrappy defense, epitomized by the selfless and relentless determination of players like the 5-foot-3 Cullinane and 5-foot-10 Nelson, who has committed to play softball at Northwestern.
 
“Defense is our bread and butter,” Coughlin said. “We just ugly the game and slow it up probably more than I’d like to but that’s what we had to do with this group.”
 
Things appeared bleak after the Huskies lost all five games at the Trinity Thanksgiving Tournament.
 
“This team could have buried itself,” Coughlin said. “I was sitting in Trinity’s locker room with them when we were 0-5, and I joked with them.
 
“I said the last team that won conference started 2-7. I wasn’t thinking that we could win conference this year, so I said that doesn’t mean that we’re going to win conference, and they were like, ‘What?’  So I said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll win conference.’
 
“I left that day thinking it was going to be a really long year, but they bounced back with a great practice the next day and this team practices well.”
 
The Huskies, who meet Hinsdale South in a WSC crossover game Tuesday, face a similar scenario in the Class 4A playoffs.
 
Oak Park and River Forest is seeded eighth at the New Trier Sectional and expectations are low. The Huskies open the Prosser Regional against ninth seed Niles North. A win would pit them against top-seeded New Trier in the regional final.
 
“We have a lot of hard games ahead, but I’m excited,” Siler said. “If you saw us in the beginning of the year, we were a totally different team.
 
“I’m excited to see what we can do in the playoffs. I think we’re going to come together and really get things going. I just hope teams don’t look down at us.”
 
Opponents shouldn’t overlook Lyons either. The Lions are the sixth seed at their own sectional. If they can get past 11th seed and host Downers Grove South and then third seed Simeon, Lyons will play on its home floor, where they are 12-1 this season.
 
But the Lions, especially the seniors, aren’t looking that far ahead yet.
 
“It’s kind of bittersweet, because it’s coming to an end here in the next three weeks,” Corrigan said. “It’s really nice to end the conference season this way.”
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