By: Eric Van Dril | March 8, 2017
The fourth quarter of Oak Park-River Forest’s 46-43 upset of Curie featured an unforgettable stretch of shotmaking in the final minute of regulation.
First, there was Allante’ Pickens’ 3-pointer.
The Condors trailed by four with under 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Class 4A Proviso East Sectional semifinal on March 7. The defending Class 4A state champions were on the brink of elimination. They desperately needed a quick basket.
The ball was passed to Pickens, who caught it right in the front of the Curie bench. As Pickens was still moving to his right, the 5-foot-9 guard fired an off-balance 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of two Huskies and drained it.
That pulled the Condors within one.
Oak Park-River Forest senior forward Jared Scott (eight points, 12 rebounds) was then fouled, and couldn’t add to the lead from the free-throw line.
The Condors grabbed the rebound. They needed a basket. This time, they looked to senior guard Elijah Joiner.
Joiner came off of a screen, caught a pass from Pickens on the wing and fired from behind the arc. Joiner was fouled on the play, but his 3-pointer rattled in as the referee’s whistle rang through Proviso East’s spacious gymnasium.
Curie’s fans went wild.
Joiner had put the Condors ahead 39-37 with 13.1 seconds remaining. Emotion poured out of the Tulsa signee.
“Pickens and Joiner hit two of the toughest 3s I’ve seen,” said Oak Park-River Forest coach Matt Maloney, whose team prevailed in overtime. “They came out with just ice in their veins and buried two tough shots. That’s what you want your seniors to do.”
The fantastic shotmaking of Pickens and Joiner put Curie in position to steal the sectional semifinal. But, ironically, it was one of basketball’s easiest shots — the free throw — that kept the Condors from beating OPRF in regulation.
Joiner (10 points) had the chance to put the Condors ahead by three points, but couldn’t. His free-throw attempt bounced off of the back of the rim.
The Huskies called a timeout and set up a play that resulted in senior forward Cam Gross (10 points, 10 rebounds, four steals) driving into two Curie defenders, getting a foul call and seeing his line-drive shot bounce off of the backboard and in.
“It was just an unbelievable shot,” Maloney said, of Gross’ and-one bucket with the game on the line. “That’s what you want your senior leaders to do — put the team on their back in those type of situations and make a play.”
Gross’ field goal tied the game at 39, but he missed the ensuing free throw.
An Oak Park-River Forest player managed to grab the offensive rebound momentarily, and then a Curie player — it looked to be senior guard Dennis Handy — stole the ball near the free-throw line and the whistle blew.
The Huskies had committed a foul. The referee who blew the whistle wasn’t sure which player was fouled, however.
The suspense built.
Pickens, the Condors’ best free-throw shooter, stood at the free-throw line as the referees tried to determine who was fouled on the play.
After a lengthy delay, the referees said it was senior forward Terry Smith Jr., who didn’t appear to be involved in the play, that was fouled.
Smith stepped to the line for a one-and-one. He, like Joiner moments before, couldn’t get his free throw to fall.
The game went to overtime.
“Whoever’s at the line, he’s got to make them,” Curie coach Mike Oliver said. “They gave us numerous opportunities to come back and steal that game. We were playing bad. We had a lot of opportunities to steal it back.”
Oliver added: “There isn’t much you can say (to the team afterward). It was a great game. I think they wanted it more than us. They had more energy. But we had three seniors (Joiner, Smith and Handy early in the fourth) up there. We had numerous chances to win the game.”
Curie finished 7-for-16 from the free-throw line. Despite those struggles, it took a 41-40 lead with 1:10 remaining in overtime when Joiner drove to the basket and scored.
But the Huskies (24-6) were the better team in the extra period. Junior guard Isaiah Fuller put Oak Park-River Forest back ahead by one with 55 seconds remaining, and then Gross scored on a putback after Scott stole the ball but couldn’t convert at the rim.
Pickens (game-high 14 points) had a chance to send the game to a second overtime with a half-court attempt at the buzzer, but his shot bounced off of the right side of the rim.
“I’m just speechless,” Gross said, when asked what it’s like to upset the defending state champions.
“It feels great,” Scott said. “Our coach told us we’d be the only ones in the gym to expect us to come out with the win, and we were. In the hallways at school, people were (saying), ‘Oh, you guys are going to lose. You’re playing the defending state champs.’ But we knew in our minds (we’d win) the whole way. We trusted in each other and we believed in each other. We didn’t even play our best game. We just fought that much harder, and we came out with the W.”
The Huskies, who are the No. 4 seed in the Proviso East Sectional, will play in the sectional title game on Friday night. They will face the winner of the sectional semifinal between No. 2 Whitney Young and No. 3 Kenwood, which takes place tonight.
“We have to play our best game ever to get this game on Friday,” Gross said.
Curie finished its season with a 25-4 record.
The Condors weren’t able to replicate the postseason success of last year, but Oliver spoke very highly of Curie’s senior class — Smith, Joiner, Pickens, Handy and senior forward Darius Johnson — and what they have meant to the program.
This group “is special,” Oliver said. “They did everything on and off the court. All of these guys were a part of a great run last year, and they’re great students. There’s life after basketball. They’ve got to bounce back and finish up the school year real strong and go to college.”