DOWNERS GROVE – Zach Russell doesn’t have to worry about his status on DeKalb’s team this season.
The senior guard is a pivotal reason why DeKalb is off to one of its best starts since the 2000-01 season under then-coach Chuck Schramm.
Russell scored a team-high 17 points to go with aggressive play on defense to lead the Barbs to a 55-43 win over host Downers Grove North on Saturday in the finale of the Winter Classic.
Senior forward Joe Owens poured in 13 points and junior guard Trenton Kyler had 11 points to extend DeKalb’s winning streak to 12 games.
In a two-day span, the Barbs (14-3) defeated Naperville North and Downers Grove North (8-7) to erase the early frustrations from a 2-3 start. The Barbs knocked off the Trojans with a physical man-to-man defense and by crashing the boards to overcome a size disadvantage.
“We preach in practice tough defense, and with a team like that tall and physical and we’re smaller, we have to be more physical,” Russell said. “That’s what we did tonight. We’re pretty hot right now.”
Russell drilled a pull-up 3-pointer in the midst of a game-turning run in the second quarter that ended with the Barbs leading 28-16 with about 2 minutes left. His steal and layup at the end of the third quarter gave the Barbs some breathing room for a 40-34 lead.
“My teammates found me, was able to knock down shots and also got to the free throw line,” Russell said. “We all played well.”
A year ago, Russell said he watched most of the game from the bench. His offseason daily work is a big factor in his improvement.
“I just grinded in the summer and fall to get better,” Russell said.
First-year DeKalb coach Mike Reynolds revealed he didn’t get his first look at Russell’s game until after the summer.
“He’s a guy that plays hard,” Reynolds said. “That sometimes gets missed in the world of athletics today. If you play hard and have a little skill, you can be really good. He shoots when he’s open, and drives it when it’s there.”
The 5-foot-10 Russell embodies the new-look Barbs’ tough attitude on both ends of the court. Russell and senior guard Avery Medina made things difficult for the Trojans’ guards with their pressure. Both players screamed out loud in excitement after watching the Trojans throw a ball out of bounds for a turnover early in the fourth quarter.
“Avery and Zach are kind of our leaders defensively,” Reynolds said. “We’re a little team, [we] have to pressure and we push our guards to rebound. If our guards can rebound, we can push it faster.”
Downers Grove North trailed the majority of the game, but cut the deficit to 40-38 after a basket by Nate Demos early in the third quarter. Owens, however, scored five points in a 7-0 DeKalb run for a 47-38 lead.
The Trojans committed four straight turnovers to spoil a chance at a comeback. Jack Mielke led Downers Grove North with 10 points and Nate Demos had nine points.
“We played pretty well, only had 12 turnovers but we just had two untimely stretches of turnovers that hurt us,” Downers Grove North coach Jim Thomas said.
Correction: The team DeKalb defeated was previously wrong in the online headline. DeKalb defeated Downers Grove North.