Conference titles are a strange entity in high school basketball. Some schools don’t seem to care about them much at all, they are focused on city or state titles or another local rivalry.
That isn’t the case in Country Club Hills. Don Houston’s program is built on conference supremacy. Hillcrest has won whatever conference it has played in for 31 of the last 32 years.
The South Suburban Blue title was on the line Friday in Oak Forest. A win would give the Hawks a share. A loss would give the Bengals their first conference title since 1987. Hillcrest pulled out a 66-59 win.
“We wouldn’t have been able to go to sleep tonight if we lost,” Hillcrest’s Julius Rollins said. “It would have been kind of embarrassing. We had to continue the legacy that goes back generations so we just played our hearts out.”
Rollins, a 6-6 junior, had 14 points and 11 rebounds. Jakobi Heady, another 6-6 junior, finished with 23 points and seven rebounds. The defensive effort of the two tall juniors was just as important.
Oak Forest (26-3, 12-1) has been winning due to its length. The Hawks neutralized that, out-rebounding the Bengals 33-17.
“They disrupted whatever we were trying to do,” Oak Forest coach Matt Manzke said. “We weren’t able to get anything going in the half court set. In the third quarter just getting a shot off was hard.”
Hillcrest outscored Oak Forest 20-4 in the third quarter.
“I don’t even want to tell you about that halftime speech,” Houston said. “It was epic. It was just something. We wanted to get the fire out of them. They didn’t have the fire in the first half.”
Houston didn’t attempt to downplay the significance the conference dominance has to his team and town.
“It’s important for the kids, the school and the community,” Houston said. “We are playing for something that is bigger than us. There are guys in this locker room, guys in the community, guys all around the world that are Hawks that have kept this alive. This legacy is everyone’s and we have to continue it.”
Hillcrest (21-8, 12-1) was highly-regarded in the preseason but it has been an up and down few months. Junior point guard Mar’Keise Irving is the key to the team. The Hawks have several long athletes but he’s the player that ties everything together and makes the team go. He’s also one of the best running backs in the state. It took a couple months for Irving to get his basketball legs back.
“He definitely needed that time,” Houston said. “He plays so hard in everything that he does. He needs those legs. For him to not be able to do what he wants to do naturally takes away from him as a person and a player.”
When he’s at his best Irving can blaze through the baseline for acrobatic layups. That was his move against Oak Forest. He finished with 23 points, six steals and four rebounds.
“The baseline is my thing,” Irving said. “I feel like the defender can’t stay with me. I just blow right past him and do the up and under.”
Jayson Kent led Oak Forest with 23 points and six rebounds. Sophomore Robbie Avila added 11 points, five rebounds and four assists and his older brother, senior Juan Avila, had eight points and four assists.
Next up for Hillcrest is Rich South on Tuesday in the Class 3A regional semifinals. Oak Forest, also a Class 3A team, will play the winner of Bremen vs. Brooks on Tuesday.
“We needed to come together and play as a team,” Irving said. “That happened. Now we can go far in the state playoffs.”