OAK PARK – York junior guard Jeff Grace casually started walking toward his team’s bench following the final whistle of Saturday’s road game against Oak Park-River Forest.
After scoring 20 points, hauling in seven rebounds and igniting a fourth-quarter comeback to lead the Dukes to an inspirational 53-42 win, Grace wasn’t ready to give up the basketball.
A few seconds later, an OPRF assistant casually asked Grace to return the basketball.
With Nate Shockey sidelined for the second straight game due to a sickness, Grace played all 32 minutes — carrying the Dukes to their first victory at OPRF since 2015.
Although Grace wasn’t awarded an actual game ball, he walked away with the admiration of his coaches, teammates and the Huskies. Lex Harrison added 14 points and center Tim Glavan pulled down 10 rebounds to lead a collective team effort. Wit the win, the Dukes (25-3, 9-1) eliminated the Huskies (13-10, 6-4) from the West Suburban Silver race.
“Jeff played so hard, all 32 minutes,” Glavan said. “I don’t think there’s a single person who could guard him (tonight) driving to the lane. He was a beast. You have to take your hat off to him. With Nate out, he stepped up big time.”
A day after an emotional victory over Downers Grove North on the strength of a two late free throws by Harrison, the Dukes battled back from a sluggish first half effort to knock off the Huskies, who defeated the Dukes twice in York's program-record 29-win campaign last season.
Grace had dealt with a nagging ankle injury that hampered his play for a few weeks, but with Shockey in dress clothes on the bench, he responded with one of his best individual games of his career.
“It was fun being out there with my teammates, and every day we go out there, we are getting better, especially winning this game without Nate,” Grace said. “We showed we work as a team. I believe in my teammates. I’m just happy to be healthy and help our team win.”
Playing point guard against the Huskies, Grace did his best Shockey impersonation by attacking the weak spots in OPRF’s defense, pushing the pace and tossing highlight-reel passes.
Trailing 32-27 after the third quarter, Grace put on a show to lead the Dukes to a comeback victory. The 6-foot-2 Grace scored on a layup, hit a free throw and added a putback to give the Dukes a 34-32 edge with 5:51 remaining. Three minutes later, Grace tossed a long pass to Nick Hesch for a layup to pad the lead to 42-37 — his second assist in three-plus minutes.
The Dukes played without three players on Friday, forcing them to call up sophomore Drew Kircher to the varsity without any practice time. Kircher wasn’t fazed by the big-game setting, scoring four late points. Kircher caused the York bench to erupt when he scored on a drive with 1:30 left in regulation. He added two free throws to seal the victory with 55 ticks left.
“I thought Lex had a bad start, but he was great after that and made big finishes,” York coach Vince Doran said. “We had to call the sophomore coach because we found out late about Nate, and we needed Drew. He came up huge, and had a huge finish at the end.”