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A long time coming: Oak Lawn wins first conference title in 39 years

By Steve Millar
Correspondent

After a 39-year wait and some near-misses in recent seasons, Oak Lawn is finally bringing home a conference championship.

The Spartans sealed their first South Suburban Red title, and first conference championship of any kind since winning the SICA West in 1982-83, by pulling out a dramatic 48-45 road win over T.F. South on Jan. 26 in Lansing.

“These are all Oak Lawn and Hometown kids who have played together for a long time,” an emotional Oak Lawn coach Jason Rhodes said after the game. “We had so many kids step up to get this done and it means so much that we were able to finish it off and win this.”

Senior guard Isaiah Thompson broke a 45-45 tie with 43 seconds to go, hitting a pair of free throws for the Spartans (17-4, 9-1).

Thompson said he has struggled with free throws this season, but he took to heart some advice Rhodes offered him.

“In practice, coach kept telling me to hold the ball at the peak of my jump shot,” Thompson said. “At first, I didn’t want to listen to him and just shot it regularly, but I was like, ‘This time, I’m going to listen to him. I’m going to hold it at the peak of my jump shot, I’m going to take my time and I’m going to hit these free throws.’”

Davion Lawrence added a free throw with 17 seconds left and a T.F. South 3-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark, allowing the celebration to begin.

As the Spartans loudly congratulated each other in the visiting locker room, Rhodes thought about past players who came up a little short.

“I think about all those guys over the years and how much it meant to the players before,” Rhodes said. “Some years, we’d have guys crying in the locker room after we lost a game that could have won it for us.

“To be able to release all that emotion in there (after the clinching game) is huge.”

Rhodes was proud of Thompson, who has developed into a player Oak Lawn can rely on and whose clutch free throws will certainly go down in Spartans lore.

“Isaiah played one of his best games of the season in a game where we really needed him to,” Rhodes said. “We’ve been talking to him all year long because he has so much ability, but he doesn’t always use his skills on the floor. We believe in him. He hit some big shots.

“We were 7-for-8 from the line in the fourth quarter, so that was huge.”

Ayham Salah was huge off the bench for Oak Lawn, leading the way with 17 points. Thompson finished with nine points and seven rebounds, Johnny McGowan scored eight points, Lawrence had six points and 11 rebounds, and Nicco Reyes scored six points.

“This is a big win,” Salah said. “We haven’t done this in so long and I think it proves the work that we’ve put in pays off. You just have to trust the process and keep it going.”

T.F. South did not allow spectators for the game, so no Oak Lawn fans saw history be made.

Rhodes said his team will celebrate with the community soon.

“That’s the only unfortunate thing is no one could really come witness this,” Rhodes said. “That’s a bummer, but we’ll find another way to celebrate it.”

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