By Dan McGrath

By all accounts, Leo’s 72-64 homecourt victory over Mount Carmel on Friday, Jan. 28, was one of the Lions’ best performances of the season.

Their reward? A 72-mile bus trip and a Saturday game with Pontiac in the Herscher Shootout.

A meeting with an 11-10 team from the Illini Prairie Conference in a near-empty gym surely lacks the juice of a Catholic League showdown with an ancient rival before a loud crowd, and the Lions seemed a step slow and a bit disinterested for much of the first half.

“I don’t know if it was the bus ride or what, but we were pretty lackadaisical,” Coach Jamal Thompson said.

After shaking off their malaise during the halftime break, the Lions opened the third quarter on a 13-2 run and pulled away to a 70-52 victory as Jakeem Cole wrapped up a 50-point weekend by scoring 27. 

Tyler Smith added 15 points and Cameron Cleveland went for 14. Jamari Allen took down a game-high nine rebounds and Christian Brockett had nine assists and six steals as Leo opted for efficiency over pizzazz in improving to 15-3 overall.

“A win is a win,” Thompson said.

Then there was that Mount Carmel win, some 20 hours earlier. 

The Lions harassed the Caravan into a boatload of turnovers and used crisp ball movement and deft outside shooting to remain unbeaten (9-0) in Cathoilc League play. In a game of runs, Leo put together two that mattered most.

DeAndre Craig’s three-pointer brought the Caravan within 44-43 late in the third period, but the Lions pressed their way to a 10-0 spurt that put them back up by 11.

They then opened the final period with a 7-2 flurry that stretched a six-point lead to 11, and the eight by which it trailed at the end was as close as Carmel would get.

Craig was as good as advertised, collecting 21 points on a variety of shots, but the Lions made him work for everything. Elijah Jointer, a center built like a linebacker at 6-feet-5 and 230 pounds, bull-rushed his way to 14 points and 14 rebounds while setting picks with the force of an 18-wheeler … and was somehow called for just two fouls in the first 30 minutes. 

Cole’s game-high 23 points included five straight fourth-quarter free throws that helped Leo retain control. Cleveland’s 14 points featured three three-pointers. Brockett scored nine with seven assists. Austin Ford collected nine points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, and Allen contributed valuable minutes in relief of Tyler Smith, who spent much of the night in foul trouble.

“Good, solid win—offense, defense, hustle, ball movement, playing smart, keeping our heads …” Thompson said. “We did a lot of things well tonight. I’m proud of the effort.”

Fenwick is next for the Lions, at Leo on Tuesday, Feb. 1. The Friars (6-10 overall, 4-5 Catholic League) are an improving team, having lost to Brother Rice and St. Rita by a combined five points in their last two outings.

But if the game has the feel of a prelim, it’s because Brother Rice (20-2 overall, 9-0 CCL) is due at Leo for a first-place showdown on Friday, Feb. 4—Alumni Night. The Crusaders have won four straight from the Lions—two at Brother Rice, two at Leo—with both games at Brother Rice going to overtime.

The Lions have won three in a row since taking a nonconference whipping from high-flying Hillcrest on Jan. 18.

“We went undefeated this week,” Thompson noted,” and if we can go undefeated again next week I’ll be very happy.”