By Dan McGrath

Leo-Brother Rice, first place in the Catholic League on the line, Alumni Night, packed house at Leo … you couldn’t have asked for a better setting for a high school basketball game. 

And if you witnessed it, you probably were drained enough to feel as if you had played, such was the back-and-forth intensity and drama on Friday, Feb. 4. 

Leo has played better during this 17-3 season, but never harder in grinding out a 56-50 victory, its 11th without a loss in the Catholic League Blue Division. Brother Rice saw its 12-game winning streak halted in falling to 21-3, 10-1.

“We hadn’t beaten Brother Rice since I’ve been here,” Leo Coach Jamal Thompson said, referencing the Crusaders’ four-game winning streak in the series that dates to the 1950s, “and don’t think the alumni didn’t remind me.

 “So that was one of my goals. We won by playing Leo basketball.”

That would be tough, smart, aggressive, unselfish basketball that squeezed just enough offense out of a defense that forced 17 turnovers and limited Brother Rice star Ahmad Henderson to nine points—10 fewer than he put up last season, when the Crusaders won in overtime.

“We knew we couldn’t let him get rolling,” Thompson said.

Henderson’s game is to attack the basket, draw the defense to him and create open looks for his three-point-shooting teammates or close-in opportunities for the 6-feet-6 tandem of Khalil Ross and Jayden Watson. But he often found himself with nowhere to go against relentless defensive pressure that thoroughly disrupted Brother Rice’s trademark motion offense. 

Foul trouble was a factor in keeping Henderson quiet. But it could be argued that he was the third best junior guard on the floor on a night when Leo’s Jakeem Cole and Tyler Smith combined for 40 points.

Cole missed his first two shots, then hit 10 of his next 11 en route to a game-high 22 points, giving him 87 in his last four games. Smith scored 12 of his 18 in the second half, closing the third quarter and opening the fourth with three-pointers to help Leo build a 12-point lead that withstood several Crusader challenges.

“Every kid on this team is capable of stepping up and making plays”,Thompson said, “and tonight it was Tyler and Jakeem.”

Leo is 10-1 in calendar year 2022, unbeaten since a 13-point loss at Hillcrest on Jan. 18. Its six-game winning streak will be put to the test against Oak Forest (20-6) in the Evergreen Park Shootout on Sunday, Feb. 6 (6:30 p.m. tip) and at St. Rita (18-7, 9-0 Catholic League) on Tuesday, Feb. 8 (7 p.m.).

But Thompson allowed himself a moment to savor the Brother Rice win, which he foretold after last season’s excruciating overtime loss.

“Next year,” he vowed at the time, “we’ll be the ones who are over there celebrating.”

That they did.