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By Dan McGrath

A nice moment followed the plaque presentation after the Leo Lions beat CICS Longwood 73-53 to secure the IHSA Class 2-A sectional basketball championship at Julian High School on Friday, March 4.

Unprompted, the Lions took the plaque and moved toward the Leo cheering section, holding it aloft in a “this is for you” gesture that assured  the alumni, students and former players in the house that Leo (25-4) was grateful for their boisterous support through the regional and sectional rounds of state tournament play.

But before the locker room door had closed, it was obvious that the Lions’ attention had already shifted to Monday night and a Supersectional matchup with DePaul Prep in Joliet. It’s a rematch of a Feb. 15 meeting at Leo in which the Rams prevailed 48-38, handing Leo its only loss of the Catholic League season and stopping its 10-game winning streak.

Team captain Cameron Cleveland missed the game with a sore knee, and the Lions had already clinched the Catholic League title.

“I wasn’t happy we lost, but I told the coaches it was a good loss because it brought us back down to earth and helped us refocus,” Leo Coach Jamal Thompson said. “I also told them we’d see DePaul again in the Supersectional, and we’d beat them when it really mattered.”

The Lions will be strikingly outsized—as they have been in most games this season—but it hasn’t been an issue through four postseason wins in which balanced scoring and unrelenting defense have created an average victory margin of 30 points.

The Longwood game was typical. Cleveland and Jakeem Cole combined for 21 points in staking Leo to a 37-25 lead at the halftime break. Tyler Smith took it from there, scoring 25 of his 28 points in the second half and leaving an indelible imprint on the game with six assists and six rebounds.

“Tyler,” Thompson said of his smooth and efficient junior guard, “was really good.”

Leo’s defense was nearly as impressive in limiting Longwood to four quarters of inconsequential dribbling. Go-to guy Terrance Jones scored 18 points, but he needed 19 shots to hit seven and didn’t come close to matching Smith’s overall impact.

Austin Ford had nine points, seven rebounds and five steals for Leo and was heard from again in the postgame locker room.

“I want this for you … and you … and you … and you … and you,” Thompson said, singling out Ford and the other four seniors on his roster who are three wins away from a state championship.

Said Ford: “Let’s win it for all of us … and for our school.”