By Dan McGrath
Christian Brockett took off on a left-handed drive down the lane in the final seconds of a 57-all tie. He flipped up a runner that Morez Johnson got a piece of, and the ball seemed to hang in the air.
Slipping into the lane unencumbered, Austin Ford timed his jump, corralled his teammate’s miss and eased it back through the hoop, as gently as one might burp a baby. The horn sounded as the ball nestled through the net, and the visiting Leo Lions had a 59-57 victory over St. Rita that defied all laws of probability.
How Ford managed such a delicate maneuver after 39-plus minutes of furiously competitive basketball was, well, a sidelight. So were his 17 second-half points, and Leo’s 19-3 record, eight-game winning streak, and 12-0 Catholic League mark that gives the Lions the inside track to their first conference championship since 2010.
But THE story of this Tuesday, Feb. 8 evening, the thing that prompted Leo fans to storm the court in disbelief as much as jubilation, was the Lions’ comeback from a 17-point deficit against a long, strong and quick team that looked as formidable as any Leo has faced this season.
At 6-feet-9, the sophomore Johnson personified St. Rita’s size advantage; his 10 first-half points featured three monster dunks that had the St. Rita segment of the crowd in a tizzy.
Fellow sophomore Jaedin Reyna was as quick as any Leo guard and seemed impervious to their pressure while collecting 10 points of his own. The halftime score was 35-20 St. Rita, and the haughty Mustangs (18-8, 9-0 coming in) appeared to be cruising.
But howling at the moon is more sensible than counting out the Lions in this season of surprises. Brockett, Jakeem Cole and Tyler Smith found their legs and began attacking the basket in the third quarter. When St. Rita’s bigs came out to contest, Ford slipped behind them for baseline layups.
At the other end, Leo’s guards stepped up their pressure on Reyna, wearing him down in the absence of a secondary ballhandler. He scored only two second-half points, and six St. Rita turnovers surely contributed to Leo’s 22-5 third-quarter domination.
The Lions saved their best for last in the period. The ball was in Ford’s hands as the third-quarter clock wound down, and given his location, he was probably the last guy Leo wanted shooting. But he launched a three from in front of his bench that dropped cleanly, giving the Lions a 42-40 lead after three periods.
It would grow to five, though Johnson would do his best to keep the Mustangs in it, scoring 10 of his game-high 22 in the fourth quarter. Leo’s lead was two when Smith slithered his way to a lefty layup and a 57-53 advantage with just under a minute left.
One stop might have sealed it, but sensing that, the Lions were both overly aggressive and careless, wrapping two fouls around a turnover. The Mustangs tied it with four straight free throws, Reyna’s two coming with 10.8 seconds left.
Leo called time. Then came Brockett … then Ford … then bedlam.
“I don’t really have anything to say,” Coach Jamal Thompson offered, exhaustion evident in his voice, “except that I’m extremely proud of our guys. We keep saying we’re a four-quarters team, and we surely were tonight. We had to be. We never gave up, never quit, even when it looked bad. Proud of them.”
Ford finished with a team-high 19 points and six rebounds. Smith and Cole had 15 apiece, 13 of Cole’s coming in the second half. The Lions had 12 assists to only nine turnovers—impressive given the pace of the game—and hit 16 of 19 free throws.
It all came at a price. Ford got whacked in the eye on a putback and squinted through the fourth quarter looking as if he’d taken a left hook from Joe Frazier. Cam Cleveland shot (and made) his two free throws when Ford required treatment for the injury; Cleveland was on the bench after banging his knee in a sideline collision and played very little in the fourth.
One suspects they’ll be in the lineup on Friday (Feb. 11) when the Lions travel to St. Laurence.