By Dan McGrath

Regional champs—has a nice ring to it, does it not?

It surely does for the Leo basketball team.

After 18 months as inadvertent victims of unfortunate turmoil, the Lions can point to a Class 2-A Regional title as a sign of undeniable progress, earning the plaque Friday night with a 45-39 victory over host Julian in the championship game of the Julian Regional.

It’s on to the Corliss Sectional for Leo (13-19) and a first-round matchup with Phillips (20-9) on Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. Hansberry (19-11) and Dyett (14-11) are the other Corliss Sectional participants.

“I’m proud of the guys,” Coach Jimalle Ridley said. “We probably made it a little harder than it needed to be, but we stuck with it, we competed, and everybody who had a role to play played it.”

For a time the Leo made it look easy—an active halfcourt trap bothered the Jaguars into 12 first-half turnovers as the Lions led 17-6 after a quarter and 27-8 with three minutes left in the half.

But nothing comes easy for a team with four freshmen in its rotation and nary a senior on its roster. All of a sudden the Lions got tentative and uncertain with the ball and forgot how to rebound, enabling Julian to close the half on a 9-0 run for 27-17 at the intermission.

Leo seemed unnerved by the swarming, pick-a-man-and-harass-him defensive tactics the Jaguars employed in the third quarter—they forced six Leo turnovers, outscored the Lions 15-5 and pulled even at 32-all on Orlando Morris’ buzzer-beating three-pointer.

But Leo regained its equilibrium by attacking the basket as the fourth quarter opened. Stephen Barze powered his way to two layups and the Lions made five of six free throws during a 9-0 run that gave them some breathing room. The feisty Jaguars (23-6) kept coming, but they lacked the firepower to erase the deficit once the Lions determined to take better care of the ball while playing an effective delay game. 

Thirty-two of Leo’s 45 points came from freshmen as Nate Stephens delivered a monster game with 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks. Barze, a junior,  collected six of his eight points in the fourth quarter and helped control things underneath with five rebounds. 

Julian got 13 points from guard Cyrus Jones. Twenty turnovers proved to be the Jaguars’ undoing.

Phillips will be a handful, having won the King Regional after finishing fourth in the Public League’s uber-competitive Red South Central against the likes of Curie, Kenwood and Simeon. Hansberry, the top seed in the sectional, won the South Shore Regional, while Dyett prevailed at Dunbar.

“We’ll be ready,” Ridley vowed. “It’s an honor to still be playing this time of year, and we want to keep playing.”