Losing the best player on a team can often spell disaster when it comes to making a long postseason run. But for the Sauk Valley men's basketball team, that scenario might actually help in its quest for a first Region IV title in a decade.
When the Skyhawks first lost 6-foot-7 senior center Daven Ottley to a sprained right wrist late in their Jan. 22 game at Black Hawk, things didn't look too good. Sauk Valley went on to blow a lead and lose that game in overtime, marking an inauspicious start to life without their best post scorer and rebounder.
But things would turn around quickly. Sauk won three of the five games Ottley missed, and since his return in the Feb. 12 rematch with Black Hawk, the Skyhawks (20-10) haven't lost.
"We survived, really, while he was gone," Sauk coach Russ Damhoff said. "Losing him probably cost us a shot at the conference title, but I think it's actually made us better in a couple of areas."
Those areas: defense and depth. Without Ottley inside to clean up defensive mistakes, the Skyhawks found a few "leaks" in their zone. On the offensive end, losing a guy who averages double digits in rebounds forced not only the other positions on the court to hit the boards harder, but also allowed for other posts like 6-8 sophomore Magd Owayed, 6-8 sophomore Taivious Ford and 6-8 freshman David Newton to build confidence through more playing time.
"Losing Daven hurt us, but it also helped us," sophomore guard Jalen Riley said. "We had to learn fast as a unit how to make up for playing without him, and all of us had to make a more concerted effort to fill in the areas where we didn't have him to rely on any more.
"It was kind of like a next-man-in type of mentality. We couldn't feel sorry for ourselves, and we just had to keep trying to find ways to win games."
Riley was a big reason for that. While the 6-foot sophomore from Racine, Wis., had started to find his groove offensively before Ottley went down, the Skyhawks' former No. 2 scoring option suddenly became the No. 1 go-to guy.
And he has delivered.
Riley scored 25 in the game where Ottley went down, then scored 88 points in the five games Ottley sat out, a 17.6 points per game average. He's been even better since the big man's return; Riley has 129 points the past five games (25.8 ppg), including at least 23 points in each of the last four.
"Riley did really fill that scoring gap for us," Damhoff said. "He's raised his game even more the past dozen games or so, and the more we've had to look for him to score for us, the more consistently he's put up big numbers."
While Riley (19.0 points, 2.2 assists, 2.1 steals per game) acknowledged his recent hot streak, he was quick to point to other Skyhawks as being just as key. He specifically mentioned posts Owayed (10.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Newton and Ford, as well as point guard Carlos Hendrix (7.6 ppg, 7.6 apg, 2.3 spg). In the 10 games since Ottley's injury, the 5-10 freshman Hendrix has had four games of nine assists or more and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1.
"Carlos and I have really done a good job keeping consistent on the offensive end," Riley said, "and we've also made sure to tighten up on the perimeter defense as well."
Ottley, who averages 16.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, has seen the growth of his teammates.
"It was hurting me a lot sitting on the sideline and watching us suffering on our rebounding," Ottley said, "but I'm very proud at the way all the different guys stepped up and made up the difference. The team is much stronger since I was hurt, and I think we're turning into a real 'team' now, with everybody zoned into the same mindset and ready to play for that regional championship."
Damhoff agrees with that sentiment. The 27-year veteran coach said the team has finally settled into a strong rotation the past five games with Ottley back in the fold, after spending nearly the entire season making adjustments in one form or another.
And with the big man back in the middle, the guards playing their best ball of the season, and the backups and secondary options having gained experience and confidence, Damhoff and his crew are excited about returning to Freeport this weekend, to the site where Sauk last won a Region IV championship in 2003.
"Losing Daven might have been something we needed to give us an edge for the postseason," Riley said. "Everybody has grown so much individually, and grown together as a team. Having him back has been a big morale boost – initially, we thought he was done for the season – and I think it gives us a pretty good chance to make a strong run."
• 20-10 overall, 8-4 Arrowhead Conference
• Won 5 straight games and 7 of last 8
• Scoring leaders: Jalen Riley 19.0 ppg, Daven Ottley 16.2 ppg, Magd Owayed 10.5 ppg
• Rebound leaders: Ottley 10.4 rpg, Owayed 8.0 rpg
• Assist leaders: Carlos Hendrix 7.6 apg, Riley 2.5 apg
• Steal leaders: Hendrix 2.3 spg, Riley 2.1 spg
• Block leaders: Owayed 1.9 bpg, Ottley 1.5 bpg
FYI: Riley has scored at least 16 points in 10 of last 11 games, including 4 straight games of 23 points or more. … Hendrix has a nearly 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (92 assists to 32 turnovers, 2.875-to-1) in last 10 games. … Ottley has started last 4 games and played in last 5 after missing 5 games with sprained right wrist. … Sauk last won Region IV championship in 2003, & returns to site of that title this weekend (Highland C.C., Freeport).