By Dan McGrath

If it’s any consolation, the Leo Lions aren’t likely to see a better team than the 17-2 Hillcrest squad that dismantled them 65-41 in Country Club Hills on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The Hawks might not have a single great player, but they’ve got a roster full of good ones. And with a boisterous home crowd behind them, they played with a swagger the Lions (11-3) couldn’t match as their five-game winning streak came to an unceremonious end.  

If there’s any concern, it’s that the performance Leo put forth won’t get it done against most of the teams remaining on its schedule, never mind those the Lions will face once the IHSA state playoffs commence.

“We looked like we’d never seen a 1-3-1 press before,” Coach Jamal Thompson grumped.

What the Lions had rarely seen was a 1-3-1 press executed by a team as long, rangy and quick as Hillcrest. With the swarming Hawks contesting every pass and challenging every shot, the Lions looked intimidated, too often settling for the first available shot when a bit more patience might have produced a better one.

Leo hit just 31 percent of its shots for the game (15-for-49), going 3-for-17 on three-pointers. The skittish Lions had more turnovers (16) than assists (11) and took a pounding on the boards. The bench, which had been a weapon in the five-game winning streak Leo brought into the game, contributed three garbage-time points.

“Frustrating,” Thompson said. “I can’t point to one thing we did well.”

If a 32-minute game can be decided in 45 seconds, this one qualifies.

Leo led by as many as five points during a cautiously played first half, but Keandre Woods’ three-point shooting had Hillcrest ahead by five when a loose-ball skirmish resulted in a technical-foul call against the Hawks with 45 seconds left before halftime. Jakeem Cole’s two free throws made it a 28-25 game and the Lions retained possession with a chance to get within one. But they threw the ball away, and Bryce Tillery converted the turnover into a layup.

After a traveling call negated Cam Cleveland’s layup, Cleveland fouled Tillery—his third—and the sturdily built point guard made two free throws for a seven-point halftime lead. The Lions could have been within one … and so much for mojo.  

It got worse in the third quarter—Leo came up empty on seven of its first eight possessions while Hillcrest took off on a 15-2 run that created a 20-point deficit. Game over. 

“I hope we learn from this,” Thompson said. “Hillcrest is good, but they’re not 24 points better than us.”