Coach Thompson: Chicago Catholic League Coach of the Year, and Jakeem Cole, CCL Player of the Year

The Leo Lions will be under the direction of the Chicago Catholic League Coach of the Year, and their backcourt will feature the CCL Player of the Year when they begin state tournament play against Harlan in the Class 2-A Regional at Chicago Christian High School on Wednesday, Feb.23. 

Jamal Thompson was chosen as the Lawless Award winner for Coach of the Year, and Jakeem Cole earned the Lawless for Player of the Year in voting by Catholic League coaches at their annual postseason meeting on Sunday, Feb. 20.

Thompson guided the Lions to a 21-4 overall record and a 13-1 CCL mark that gave Leo its first conference championship since 2010. Thompson, a 2000 Leo graduate, has won 20 or more games in three of his four seasons as the Lions’ coach, the lone exception being the 2021 spring campaign, when COVID restrictions cut the schedule to 13 games.

Cole, in his third year with the varsity and his second as a starter, averaged 16.4 points, 4.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 steals. The junior guard built his case by turning in some of his best games in Leo victories over his strongest POY competition: Mount Carmel’s Deandre Craig, Brother Rice’s Ahmad Henderson and St. Rita’s Morez Johnson.

“That’s great news,” Leo Principal Shaka Rawls said. “I’m proud of Coach Thompson, proud of Jakeem, proud of all the boys, not just for the season they’ve had, but for the way they represent Leo.”

All five Leo starters received postseason recognition. Senior Cameron Cleveland was voted to the second All-CCL team, while senior Austin Ford, Junior Tyler Smith and sophomore Christian Brockett were named Honorable Mention.

“It’s an honor, and I’m really happy for Ja, who deserves it for sure,” Thompson said. “But these really are team honors, recognition for the type of season we’ve had and the work we’ve put in. 

“And it’s not over yet. The Catholic League was only the first step. We intend to keep it going.”

Harlan earned the right to face the top-seeded Lions in the Regional semifinal by downing Hansberry 60-38 in a Saturday play-in game. The Falcons were 11-17 in the regular season and 5-4 in the Public League White South, good for a fifth-place finish.

Harlan averages 52 points a game and allows 56. Raequan Smith, a 6-foot-3 guard, is their leading scorer at 15.2 points per game, while 6-8 center Demari Harris averages 3.3 blocks as a defensive presence inside. One common opponent is Thornwood, which beat Harlan by 20 (70-50) and lost to Leo by 10 (56-46).

The Leo-Harlan game tips off at 6 p.m., followed by the other semifinal between Joliet Catholic and Julian at 7:30. Joliet Catholic was 11-13 in the regular season, outscoring its opponents 57-55 on average. But the Hilltoppers failed to win a game in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, finishing last at 0-9. They split two games with two common Leo opponents, beating Providence Catholic 49-46 and losing to Pontiac 67-59.

Some mediocre years have relegated Julian to the Public League’s Blue Division, but the Jaguars could be on their way back after going 16-5 overall and 9-1 in the Blue South. Defense is the Jaguars’ calling card; they allow just 36 points per game while scoring 50.

Wednesday’s semifinal winners will meet for the Regional title at Chicago Christian on Friday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. The winner will move on to the Julian Sectional against Regional champs from Carver, Dunbar and University High.

Leo has won two regional championships and one sectional title under Thompson. “We know what’s in front of us,” he said, “and we’ll be ready.”  

We Will Always Be Proud of Our Lions

By Dan McGrath

For the first quarter of their Joliet Supersectional matchup with Catholic League rival DePaul Prep on Monday, the Leo Lions might well have been auditioning for the NBA playoffs, never mind the Illinois state tournament.

Their constant-motion, quick-strike offense produced shot after makeable shot. Their press forced six turnovers. They led 22-7 and had the Rams back on their heels.

But DePaul Prep isn’t Harlan or U-High or any of the other four opponents Leo handled with 30-point dispatch in the first two rounds of postseason play. The Rams had come to play, to compete, and an early 15-point deficit was a minor irritation, not a fatal turn of the screw. 

They threw up a defensive blanket that smothered the Lions as thoroughly as they’d been smothered in the teams’ regular-season meeting back on Feb. 15. They pulled even late in the third quarter, seized a lead that grew to five points early in the fourth and wound up prevailing 50-43 in overtime after Leo failed to convert two opportunities in the final 10 seconds of regulation and managed just four points in the extra period.

Thus it’s DePaul Prep (26-5) headed for the IHSA Class 2-A semifinals at the University of Illinois this weekend, while Leo closes the books on a 25-5 season. It produced Catholic League, regional and sectional titles and memorable moments of blissful satisfaction, but it fell short of the ultimate prize for three reasons: The Lions couldn’t keep Jaylan McElroy (18 points) off the backboards, they couldn’t keep Peyton Kamin (13 points) off the free-throw line, and they managed just 21 points in 28 minutes after that electrifying 22-point first quarter. 

“This is not how we wanted it to end, obviously, but it doesn’t take anything away from the season we had,” Coach Jamal Thompson said after consoling and thanking every player individually in a locker room as somber as a cemetery. “They gave us everything they had. They left it on the floor every night. I could not have asked any more of them. I can’t put into words how proud I am.”

When Jerry Tarkanian coached them, UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels played what was known as the “amoeba defense”—you might get past one man, but another would immediately materialize to block your path to the basket and/or challenge your shot.

Absent a tricky nickname, DePaul’s defense employs similar tactics with similar results. The shots the Lions normally take and make with aplomb simply weren’t there: Leo shot 14-for-54 (26 percent) during a long, tough night, and that includes an 8-for-14 first quarter. From the second quarter on the Lions were an astonishing 6-for-40, or 15 percent. It surely wasn’t for lack of effort, but they scored 81 points total in their two DePaul losses after averaging 65 against everybody else.  

“Numbers don’t mean a thing at this point,” Thompson said. “It just hurts.”

It might hurt a little less to look ahead—Catholic League Player of the Year Jakeem Cole returns, along with standout guards Tyler Smith and Christian Brockett. Three useful reserves are back as well, and the sophomore team’s top scorer/rebounder will join the varsity roster next season.

But it’s best not to look ahead before acknowledging the contributions of departing seniors Cameron Cleveland, Austin Ford and Jamari Allen.

Cleveland, still a bit gimpy on a sprained knee, closed out his Leo career with 13 points, including a game-tying three-pointer that rejuvenated the Lions when they’d been left for dead late in the fourth quarter. Ford’s seven points and six rebounds represented a typically active night for a 6-foot-2 “big man” who gave away size to every opponent he faced this season. Allen’s willingness to mix it up inside and guard any position on the floor gave Leo a toughness that can’t be measured in stats. 

“Cam’s leadership, Austin’s fight, Jamari’s energy … I love those guys, and we’re going to miss them,” Thompson said. “But they started something at Leo, and they’ll be able to look back and say that—they started something at Leo. This is only the beginning. We’re sad and disappointed and hurt right now, but mark my words, this is only the beginning.”       

Lions Winning Streak Ends Against DePaul Prep

It had been 10 games and 28 days since Leo’s name appeared on the ‘L’ side of a basketball score, so spotting it there was not a familiar sight.

Neither was it welcome, as it cost the Lions their hopes of an undefeated Catholic League season—on Senior Night, no less.

But hit just 22 percent of your shots and take a 33-21 whipping on the backboards against a team the caliber of DePaul Prep and a 48-38 outcome is almost predictable.

“I’m certainly not disappointed in the season we’ve had so far, but I’m disappointed in the way we played tonight,” Coach Jamal Thompson said after his team’s regular-season finale at Leo. “We weren’t aggressive. We didn’t attack.”

For one of the few times this season the Lions ran into a team with the same relentless commitment to defense that distinguishes them. Whether it was a 1-2-2 zone or a help-heavy man-to-man, the aggressive Rams simply denied the Lions the shots they normally take and make with aplomb, blocking six and discouraging at least a  dozen others, including layup after layup.

“They blocked a few and we started looking for a defender instead of shooting our normal shot,” Thompson said.

It might be basketball as mud wrestling, but DePaul excels at it. Especially when Jaylan McElroy, a 6-foot-6 sophomore with the wingspan of a much taller man, sets up shop inside and scores 17 points with nine rebounds and four blocks. Fellow sophomore Payton Kamin scored 11 for the Rams, including four straight free throws and a bucket to help them pull away after Leo had trimmed an 11-point deficit to four at the fourth-quarter mask timeout.

But, playing their fifth game in eight days, the Lions’ legs just weren’t there. They didn’t have a double-figures scorer, Austin Ford and Tyler Smith finishing with nine points apiece.

Cam Cleveland missed his third straight game, resting the knee he injured at St. Rita last week. He made a token appearance per an agreement between the coaches and scored on an uncontested layup in his final appearance at Leo’s gym. Fellow seniors Ford, Jamari Allen, Cy’Ree Johnson and Rob Smith also were honored in a pregame ceremony.

DePaul Prep is 21-4 overall and closes out an 11-3 Catholic League campaign with three straight victories over Brother Rice, St. Rita and Leo. The Rams will be a handful in the Class 2-A state tournament, which is the next order of business for the Lions ((21-3, 13-1) as well.

“We’re going to break down this film and go over every play,” Thompson promised. “It’s a new season, but we’re only guaranteed one more game. It can’t be a game like this one.“

Lions’ Streak Continues Against Scales Mound

By Dan McGrath

In this well-presented remake of “Hoosiers,” South Bend Central turns back Hickory and wins.

There was an unmistakable “Hoosiers”-like feel to Scales Mound vs. Leo, the marquee matchup of the eight-game Indian Creek Shootout in Shabbona, IL., on Saturday, Feb. 12. Representing a school of just 70 students from a hamlet of 474 people located “at the highest point in Illinois” 12 miles northwest of Galena, the all-white Hornets had shared the ball, shot the ball and defended well enough to compile a 27-1 record and the No. 2 ranking among the state’s Class 1-A teams.

Curiosity over how their boys would fare against the all-black, decidedly urban, newly crowned Catholic League champs from Chicago’s South Side who happened to be ranked No.1 among 2-A teams led green-clad Scales Mounders to pack the cozy little gym at Indian Creek High School. They made their presence known each time a play went the Hornets’ way, creating the very atmosphere Leo Coach Jamal Thompson was seeking as he prepares the Lions for state tournament road tests.

Engaged crowd, fifth game in eight nights, injury to the team captain, lengthy bus ride … Leo overcame it all in crafting a 55-50 victory, its 10th straight in a 21-3 season. Scales Mound (27-2), champion of the Northwest Illini West Conference, saw its nine-game winning streak end, but came away with the winners’ respect.

“We knew they could shoot,” Thompson said, “but they handled the ball better than we expected. They defended, they were patient and they never backed down.”

The quickness and anticipation that fuels its press was Leo’s weapon of choice, producing 16 steals. Three of them occurred during an 8-0 run that stretched a two-point lead to 10 (41-31) early in the fourth quarter. But the Hornets would’t go away, and with Ben Vandigo (18 points) revisiting the role of Hickory’s Jimmy Chitwood, got within 47-45 just after the fourth-quarter mask timeout at 3:32.

Once again Leo turned up its defensive pressure and created another 8-0 run out of four layups for a game-sealing 10-point advantage with 50 seconds left.

It was over, but it surely wasn’t easy. Playing on tired legs, the Lions nearly offset those 16 steals by allowing 10 offensive rebounds, giving the Hornets too many second chances.

“Can’t have that,” Thompson said.

Jakeem Cole’s 18 points lead the Lions. Tyler Smith had 14, Austin Ford scored 12 with eight rebounds, and Christian Brockett had seven points, eight assists and six steals. Cameron Cleveland sat out a second straight game, resting the knee he injured against St. Rita last week. Jamari Allen’s return provided a lift off the bench.

In addition to Chit… Vandigo’s 18, Scales Mound got 11 points from Collin Fosler and 10 from Ben Werner.

“If we can play 94 feet for four quarters, we give ourselves a chance,” Thompson said. “But let’s not take anything away from these guys. They were good.”

The sincerity of the exchanges in the postgame handshake line conveyed mutual respect, and as they left the building, several Scales Mound fans congratulated the Lions and wished them well in the tournament.

It was a fruitful trip, for sure.

Next: DePaul Prep (20-4, 10-3), Tuesday, Feb. 15 at Leo, Senior Night and a chance at an undefeated Catholic League season.

“Nobody has done that in a while,” Thompson said. “It would be a cool thing to be remembered for. As hard as they’ve played, our guys deserve to be remembered.”

Lions Go Into St. Laurence and Win 64-57

Catholic League champs? It has a nice ring to it.

The Leo Lions were three quarters of the way through an unexpectedly tough slog against the St. Laurence Vikings in Burbank when word reached their bench that DePaul Prep had knocked off St. Rita. That meant every team in the CCL had at least two conference losses except Leo, which would get to 13-0 with one game remaining by finishing off the Vikings.

Consider it done, 64-57. Not exactly artistic, but undeniably effective.

“I love you guys,” Coach Jamal Thompson said after he’d been doused with water, Gatorade and good cheer in a victorious locker room. “I’ve yelled at you, I’ve been hard on you, but you’ve given me everything I asked for. And here we are.”

Catholic League champs—for the first time since 2010. It has a nice ring to it.

 “But it’s only the first step,” Thompson reminded.

Fourteen hours later, the Lions would board a bus for a 76-mile trip to Shabonna and a game against Class 1-A state contender Scales Mound in the Indian Creek Shootout. A Senior Night showdown with DePaul Prep at Leo on Tuesday, Feb. 15 concludes the regular season. Leo (20-3 overall) is likely to be the top seed in the Class 2-A state tournament, which gets under way with regional play on Feb. 21.  

After two-plus weeks of enervating warfare against the likes of Loyola, Mount Carmel, Brother Rice and St. Rita, the Lions got more than they expected from St. Laurence, which was 8-21, 2-10 coming in. In fact, with their freshmen and sophomore-dominated roster, the Vikings resembled the youthful Leo team that struggled through the 2021 COVID spring season while learning what it takes to play Catholic League basketball.

They were plucky and persistent throughout a first half that would have ended deadlocked if Ahdrean Ellis hadn’t beaten the buzzer with a three-pointer that gave Leo a 28-25 lead at the break.

Midway through the third, Leo’s Austin Ford and Jarrod Gee fueled an 8-0 run that took less than a minute, stretched a six-point lead to 14 and gave off a let’s-settle-this-right-here vibe. The seven-point final margin was as close as the Vikings would subsequently get, though they left the impression that they could be handful in a year or two. 

Cameron Cleveland spent the night on the bench resting the knee he injured against St.  Rita three nights earlier. The Lions missed his versatility and court sense, though Ford picked up some of the slack with 20 points, eight rebounds and four steals. Jakeem Cole scored 18, six coming on back-to-back three-pointers that helped the Lions break it open in the third quarter. Tyler Smith scored 10 points, and Christian Brockett had six points, eight assists and four steals.

Catholic League champs? It has a nice ring to it.   

“But it’s only the first step,” Thompson insisted.    

Lions Beat St. Rita on Tip In at the Buzzer

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.  

Lions Keep On Winning in Close Victory Over Oak Forest

By Dan McGrath

Try to envision a nine-point play.

Late in the second quarter of the Leo-Oak Forest game at the Evergreen Park Shootout on Sunday, Feb. 6, Oak Forest’s man-child center Robbie Avila drew a foul while converting a putback basket. Someone in a Leo uniform yapped about the call and was assessed a technical foul.

Avila made his free throw, plus the two Oak Forest was awarded for the technical. The Bengals retained possession and scored again. Leo then turned the ball over as it inbounded, and another Bengals bucket completed a 9-0 run that in a matter of seconds transformed a one-point deficit into an eight-point lead.

It would grow to 12 early in the third period. And, given the energy Leo had expended in subduing Brother Rice less than 48 hours earlier, it would have been understandable if the Lions had submitted to tired legs and gone quietly—Rice had simply run out of gas and lost to Homewood-Flossmoor in the preceding game.

Submit? Not these Lions. They just kept playing, kept hustling, kept pressing, their effort unrelenting. Jakeem Cole’s 13-point third quarter brought them back. When Oak Forest went to a box-and-one to deny Cole the ball, Tyler Smith and Cameron Cleveland took over. Austin Ford’s foul-line jumper tied the game at 65. After Avila missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smith blew by his man and late-arriving help for a layup that put Leo up 67-65 with 14.5 seconds left.

Oak Forest called time, then lined up Taurean Mickens for a three-pointer from the corner that would have restored its lead … if Cleveland hadn’t flown out to block it. Ford was fouled after grabbing the loose ball. Leo was not yet in the bonus, but as they inbounded, the Lions ran a smart play that got Cole loose for a layup and the 69-65 final.

No one in the gym was quite sure how, but Leo is now 18-3 for the season and riding a seven-game winning streak. The Lions are No. 7 in the Chicago Sun-Times metro-area rankings heading into Tuesday night’s showdown at St. Rita (18-8, 9-0 Catholic League). 

“Four quarters, baby,” Coach Jamal Thompson said. “One thing that’s true of this team is we’re always going to play four quarters. We sure did tonight. I’m proud of the effort.”

Oak Forest coach Matt Manzke is the son of Mike Manzke ’68, the third of four Manzke brothers—Eddie ’62, Denny ’63, Mike ’68, Bobby ’70—who comprise the first family of Leo basketball. In Avila he has a weapon as potent as the Lions have seen this season. 

The big kid’s skills and agility match his size (6-feet-8, 240 pounds), and he smoothly bedeviled the Lions with 19 points in the first half. But they doubled up on him in the second and limited him to four as the Bengals sometimes seemed to forget Avila was among them.

Cole’s 23 points give him 110 in his last five games. Smith scored 15, and Cleveland augmented his 17 with three highlight-reel plays.

In the second quarter, he pinned a shot off the backboard, retrieved the carom and initiated a one-man break that resulted in a three-point play when he was fouled while flicking in a short jumper.

In the midst of Leo’s comeback. Cleveland missed the second of two free throws, but tracked down the loose ball in the corner, stepped back and nailed a three-pointer that brought Leo within 65-63.

Finally … each of Mickens’ previous four three-pointers had come from the corner, and a restoration of Oak Forest’s lead seemed inevitable as he lined up an open shot in response to Smith’s go-ahead layup. Somehow, Cleveland got to him, got a hand on the ball … this is a refuse-to-lose Leo team.

“Enjoy this tonight,” Thompson said, “but we’re back to work on Monday. There’s nobody I’d rather beat than St. Rita.”


By Dan McGrath

Leo-Brother Rice, first place in the Catholic League on the line, Alumni Night, packed house at Leo … you couldn’t have asked for a better setting for a high school basketball game. 

And if you witnessed it, you probably were drained enough to feel as if you had played, such was the back-and-forth intensity and drama on Friday, Feb. 4. 

Leo has played better during this 17-3 season, but never harder in grinding out a 56-50 victory, its 11th without a loss in the Catholic League Blue Division. Brother Rice saw its 12-game winning streak halted in falling to 21-3, 10-1.

“We hadn’t beaten Brother Rice since I’ve been here,” Leo Coach Jamal Thompson said, referencing the Crusaders’ four-game winning streak in the series that dates to the 1950s, “and don’t think the alumni didn’t remind me.

 “So that was one of my goals. We won by playing Leo basketball.”

That would be tough, smart, aggressive, unselfish basketball that squeezed just enough offense out of a defense that forced 17 turnovers and limited Brother Rice star Ahmad Henderson to nine points—10 fewer than he put up last season, when the Crusaders won in overtime.

“We knew we couldn’t let him get rolling,” Thompson said.

Henderson’s game is to attack the basket, draw the defense to him and create open looks for his three-point-shooting teammates or close-in opportunities for the 6-feet-6 tandem of Khalil Ross and Jayden Watson. But he often found himself with nowhere to go against relentless defensive pressure that thoroughly disrupted Brother Rice’s trademark motion offense. 

Foul trouble was a factor in keeping Henderson quiet. But it could be argued that he was the third best junior guard on the floor on a night when Leo’s Jakeem Cole and Tyler Smith combined for 40 points.

Cole missed his first two shots, then hit 10 of his next 11 en route to a game-high 22 points, giving him 87 in his last four games. Smith scored 12 of his 18 in the second half, closing the third quarter and opening the fourth with three-pointers to help Leo build a 12-point lead that withstood several Crusader challenges.

“Every kid on this team is capable of stepping up and making plays”,Thompson said, “and tonight it was Tyler and Jakeem.”

Leo is 10-1 in calendar year 2022, unbeaten since a 13-point loss at Hillcrest on Jan. 18. Its six-game winning streak will be put to the test against Oak Forest (20-6) in the Evergreen Park Shootout on Sunday, Feb. 6 (6:30 p.m. tip) and at St. Rita (18-7, 9-0 Catholic League) on Tuesday, Feb. 8 (7 p.m.).

But Thompson allowed himself a moment to savor the Brother Rice win, which he foretold after last season’s excruciating overtime loss.

“Next year,” he vowed at the time, “we’ll be the ones who are over there celebrating.”

That they did.

Lions Victorious Against Fenwick

By Dan McGrath

Fenwick has been a Catholic League basketball powerhouse for much of this  century, but the Leo Lions owned a three-game winning streak over the Friars before losing by one on CCL Player of the Year Bryce Hopkins’ free throw with no time remaining in overtime last March in Oak Park.

Hopkins has moved on to the University of Kentucky, and the Friars’ adjustment to life without the long-and-strong, all-purpose forward has been complicated by Coach Staunton Peck’s departure for another job and a couple of football stars’ decision to bypass their senior year of hoops.

So it was that Fenwick was an uncommonly ordinary 4-5 in the Catholic League and a puzzling 6-11 overall when it took the court at Leo on Tuesday, Feb. 1. That four of those losses had come by nine points total should have been enough to keep the Lions’ focus intact lest it wander toward Friday night’s Alumni Night showdown with fellow CCL unbeaten Brother Rice.

Trap game? To be sure. But the Lions (16-3, 10-0) managed to sneak away with a 48-40 victory, overcoming a 33-percent shooting night that featured about 10 missed layups and reached its nadir during a 1-for-14, two-point third quarter.

“And somehow we won,” Coach Jamal Thompson said, sounding genuinely surprised. “But I told the kids that if we play like that against Rice, we’re liable to get run out of our own gym.”

Leo was at its layup-creating, three-pointer-draining best in seizing a 21-12 first-quarter lead. But the Friars, playing with nothing to lose, went to a jumbo defensive package that blocked off every angle to the basket and yet was quick enough to get out and contest three-point shots—Leo didn’t make one after nailing three in the first period.

Fenwick crept back into the game as shot after shot failed to drop for the Lions. But even with bulky freshman Nathaniel Marshall proving to be a load inside, the turnover-prone Friars—21 for the night—didn’t have the firepower to capitalize on Leo’s misfires. They scored but four points of their own in that ennui-inducing third quarter, and two in the final two minutes as Leo ran down the clock and used a Tyler Smith layin and two Cameron Cleveland free throws to lock up a fifth straight win.

Jakeem Cole, coming off a 50-point weekend, scored all of his game-high 15 points in the first half. Austin Ford had eight points and nine rebounds. Cleveland had eight points, six rebounds and four assists.

Fenwick’s Marshall scored 14 on 7-for-10 shooting, putbacks and layups exclusively. He was one of three freshmen who played major minutes for the Friars.

“I don’t know what it was,” Thompson said, at a loss to explain Leo’s struggles after standout performances against Loyola and Mount Carmel. “I just know we have to be better, better focused.”

The matchup of junior guards—the Crusaders’ Ahmad Henderson and Leo’s Cole and Tyler Smith—will make for an intriguing storyline.

“Rice is tough,” Thompson said. “They’ve got some size, they’ve got some shooters—they’re tough.”

Most nights, so is Leo. Bring it on.

Lions Dominate Pontiac in the Herscher Shootout

By Dan McGrath

By all accounts, Leo’s 72-64 homecourt victory over Mount Carmel on Friday, Jan. 28, was one of the Lions’ best performances of the season.

Their reward? A 72-mile bus trip and a Saturday game with Pontiac in the Herscher Shootout.

A meeting with an 11-10 team from the Illini Prairie Conference in a near-empty gym surely lacks the juice of a Catholic League showdown with an ancient rival before a loud crowd, and the Lions seemed a step slow and a bit disinterested for much of the first half.

“I don’t know if it was the bus ride or what, but we were pretty lackadaisical,” Coach Jamal Thompson said.

After shaking off their malaise during the halftime break, the Lions opened the third quarter on a 13-2 run and pulled away to a 70-52 victory as Jakeem Cole wrapped up a 50-point weekend by scoring 27. 

Tyler Smith added 15 points and Cameron Cleveland went for 14. Jamari Allen took down a game-high nine rebounds and Christian Brockett had nine assists and six steals as Leo opted for efficiency over pizzazz in improving to 15-3 overall.

“A win is a win,” Thompson said.

Then there was that Mount Carmel win, some 20 hours earlier. 

The Lions harassed the Caravan into a boatload of turnovers and used crisp ball movement and deft outside shooting to remain unbeaten (9-0) in Cathoilc League play. In a game of runs, Leo put together two that mattered most.

DeAndre Craig’s three-pointer brought the Caravan within 44-43 late in the third period, but the Lions pressed their way to a 10-0 spurt that put them back up by 11.

They then opened the final period with a 7-2 flurry that stretched a six-point lead to 11, and the eight by which it trailed at the end was as close as Carmel would get.

Craig was as good as advertised, collecting 21 points on a variety of shots, but the Lions made him work for everything. Elijah Jointer, a center built like a linebacker at 6-feet-5 and 230 pounds, bull-rushed his way to 14 points and 14 rebounds while setting picks with the force of an 18-wheeler … and was somehow called for just two fouls in the first 30 minutes. 

Cole’s game-high 23 points included five straight fourth-quarter free throws that helped Leo retain control. Cleveland’s 14 points featured three three-pointers. Brockett scored nine with seven assists. Austin Ford collected nine points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, and Allen contributed valuable minutes in relief of Tyler Smith, who spent much of the night in foul trouble.

“Good, solid win—offense, defense, hustle, ball movement, playing smart, keeping our heads …” Thompson said. “We did a lot of things well tonight. I’m proud of the effort.”

Fenwick is next for the Lions, at Leo on Tuesday, Feb. 1. The Friars (6-10 overall, 4-5 Catholic League) are an improving team, having lost to Brother Rice and St. Rita by a combined five points in their last two outings.

But if the game has the feel of a prelim, it’s because Brother Rice (20-2 overall, 9-0 CCL) is due at Leo for a first-place showdown on Friday, Feb. 4—Alumni Night. The Crusaders have won four straight from the Lions—two at Brother Rice, two at Leo—with both games at Brother Rice going to overtime.

The Lions have won three in a row since taking a nonconference whipping from high-flying Hillcrest on Jan. 18.

“We went undefeated this week,” Thompson noted,” and if we can go undefeated again next week I’ll be very happy.”