By Bob Skolnik
Coming off two close and painful road losses the Riverside Brookfield High School boys basketball team was raring to go at the start of their final regular season game against Ridgewood on Wednesday evening on Senior Night.
"Senior night is always a night when you see a little extra energy," said RBHS head coach Mike Reingruber said. "Coming off two losses, so guys were chomping at the bit a little bit to get back out there."
It didn't take long for the Bulldogs (20-10) to come out with 65-47 win over Ridgewood.
RBHS started fast and raced out to a quick 7-0 lead on their way to a 28-point offensive explosion in the first quarter. After Ridgewood pulled to within two points at 10-8, the Bulldogs went on a 14-0 run to essentially put the game away early as they never again led by less than double digits and had a 28-14 lead at the end of the first quarter.
"We were really fired up because we know we shouldn't have lost those two games," said senior Paul Zilinskas, who hit four three-pointers on his way to a career-high 31 points.
Zilinskas, who transferred to RB from Richards for his senior year, has been a key to the Bulldogs all season. Not only has he led the Bulldogs in scoring, he has meshed with and led an inexperienced team to a successful season.
"Paul's had a tremendous impact," Reingruber said. "More than anything he's come in and he's just meshed really well with all the guys which has helped in that aspect."
Senior Dylan Meehan scored 15 points for the Bulldogs who were coming off tough road losses to Aurora Christian and Lyons Township High School. Perlat Velaj scored 15 points on five three-pointers to lead Ridgewood (14-14). The Rebels hit 11 three-pointers against the Bulldogs.
A 73-69 loss to Aurora Christian on Feb. 21 cost the Bulldogs an outright conference championship as the Bulldogs, Aurora Christian, and Chicago Christian shared the Metro Suburban Conference Blue Division title with identical 9-3 conference records.
Point guard Luke Gentile hurt his ankle in the second quarter against Aurora Christian and missed most of the rest of the game as well as the Bulldogs 56-49 loss at LTHS on Feb. 22. But the gritty Gentile was back in the starting lineup against Ridgewood. Sharpshooting reserve guard Ryan Gaynor suffered a concussion against Aurora Christian and did not play against LTHS or Ridgewood. Gaynor's status for the state tournament is uncertain.
Getting back on the winning track in the regular season finale against Ridgewood was important as the Bulldogs seek to capture their second straight regional title.
"I think it is huge to have a little momentum going into the state tournament," Reingruber said.
The Bulldogs, who are seeded fourth in the Hinsdale South Class 3A sectional, host their own regional and open play Tuesday against 13th seeded Goode Stem Academy.
The Bulldogs rebounded from two December conference losses to Chicago Christian and Immaculate Conception to earn a share of the conference title. It is the third consecutive conference championship for the Bulldogs under Reingruber. They shared the conference title with Wheaton Academy in the 2017-18 season and won it outright last year.
"We hit a slump where we lost a bunch of close games which obviously we wish we had back but it made us tougher for the rest of the year," Reingruber said.
The Bulldogs rebounded to defeat Chicago Christian and IC in rematches. A highlight of the season was a 66-59 home win over Fenwick.
Zilinskas said that maintaining mental focus late in games will be a key to advancing in the state tournament.
"Down the stretch when we get fatigued, we get tired, we need to stay mentally tough, play defense and just make plays," Zilinskas said.