Tony Baranek by Daily Southtown

There is nothing like playing the defending conference champion in the first league game of the season.

Except beating them. That’s even better.

Leo slipped and slid through three quarters Friday but sealed the deal when it counted in a 55-46 win over St. Rita at St. Xavier’s Shannon Center.

“I felt it coming the whole game. It was only a matter of time,” Leo senior Darius Branch said. “We didn’t do so well last season (in conference) so we wanted to come out and beat the conference champs. I was ready.”

Branch (18 points), Darias Oliver (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Mykel Hampton (11 points) led the way for Leo (3-1, 1-0) in the Catholic League Blue opener.

Chris Williams had 18 points and eight rebounds, while Demauris Dixon and Paul Kingsley had eight points each for St. Rita (3-3, 0-1).

The game was tied at 39-39 two minutes into the fourth quarter when Hampton and Aamir Holmes went back to back with 3-pointers for the Lions. Jamil Green added two free throws to complete an 8-0 run.

St. Rita got back within 50-46 with 53 seconds left, but the Lions scored on their final three possessions to put it away.

“We just kept moving the ball and playing as a team,” Branch said. “I felt good out there, but it wasn’t just me. It was the whole team.”

The Mustangs, having graduated all five starters from last season, played in spurts like a champion and led by as many as six points. They were ultimately done in by sloppy rebounding, missed layups and a Leo team that passed and shot its way to a fourth-quarter pull-away.

“I feel like if we grow and keep grinding in practice and listen to the coach’s game plan, we’ll be successful,” Williams said. “It’s a bright future for us if we buy into the game plan. But we’ve seen what happens if we don’t listen.

“If we don’t listen, we’ll be in for a long season.”

St. Rita came into the game off of a third-place finish on a Thanksgiving tournament trip to the Bahamas.

Uneven play prevented more success there, and it was also the theme of the night Friday.

The Mustangs missed their first six shots and didn’t score their first point against Leo until just over three minutes remained in the first quarter.

Williams, the No. 1 player off the bench during their 26-4 finish last season, lit up in the second quarter by scoring 11 points and leading St. Rita to a 25-20 halftime advantage.

St. Rita’s lead zig-zagged back and forth from five points to one throughout the third quarter, until a spinning jumper by Jordan Matthews made it a 37-35 lead for the Mustangs at the break.

The defending Catholic League champs had no answers, however, for Leo’s 8-0 outburst in the fourth quarter.

“That’s what Leo spirit is all about — perseverance,” said new Lions coach Shawn Frison, a 1987 Leo graduate. “But the big thing was we made adjustments, and we were able to use our speed. We’re just going to keep going out and playing hard.”

Twitter @tbaranek

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