The last time the Leo Lions took the floor at St. Rita, in February 2022, they staged one of the epic performances in school history, rallying from a 17 point second-half deficit to clip the Mustangs 59-57 on Austin Ford’s acrobatic put-back basket at the final buzzer.
The dramatic road win over a fellow unbeaten was the catalyst for Leo’s first Catholic League championship since 2010.
This was not that.
In fact, Friday’s Leo-Rita game was a case study of how an unregulated transfer process has shaken high school basketball to its foundation, and to its detriment.
The Lions won 63-46, in large part because they’re a year ahead of the Mustangs in a scorched-earth rebuild occasioned by the resignation of a coach, followed by the departure of five returning players.
It happened to Leo after that magical 2021-22 season; it happened to St. Rita this spring, leaving the Mustangs to compete with a tall, thin kid, a couple of football bruisers and an interchangeable cast of earnest gym-rat guards.
As the Lions learned during last season’s trying eight-win campaign, that doesn’t work in the uber-competitive Catholic League.
St. Rita fell to 1-10 overall and 0-4 in the Catholic League, and it’s hard to see the Mustangs getting to eight wins as presently constituted.
Leo, in halting a five-game losing streak, is 2-6, 1-3, and it could be a sign of better days for the Lions in that they played their best ball of the night with a freshman guard tandem on the floor.
Ka’ron Shavers’ eight-point third quarter enabled Leo to put some distance between itself and Rita after the Mustangs cut a 10-point halftime deficit to three by capitalizing on some sloppy Leo ball handling.
Shavers finished with 12 points. Fellow freshman Brian Kizer, as cool as the December evening, scored 10 and was commendably reliable with the ball.
Junior Emmanuel Walker buried six three-pointers and led the Lions with a career-high 20 points. Fellow junior Stephen Barze muscled his way to 14, but left five points in the floor by going 4-for-9 at the free-throw line.
Beefy sophomore Justin Buckner had 13 for St. Rita, nine points coming in a three-minute stretch of the third quarter.
The Lions had precious little time to savor their first win since Nov. 28; they’re at Christ the King on Saturday, Dec. 16, 4:30 pm tip-off. It’s a nonconference game, but the 6-2 Gladiators are an IHSA Class 2-A team Leo might well see come playoff time.