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.”