By Dan McGrath
An 8-0 start in Catholic League play marked the Leo basketball team as a squad capable of doing things, but the Lions knew they’d have to don their big-boy pants for the six remaining games on their CCL schedule.
Those pants were a comfortable fit in the first of those games, against Mount Carmel at Leo on Friday, Jan. 28. The Lions (14-3, 9-0) turned in one of their best all-around performances of the season in a 72-64 trimming of a Caravan team that’s looking rather mortal (19-3, 6-3) after opening the season with an 18-game winning streak.
But that’s taking nothing away from Leo. The Lions answered every Mt. Carmel challenge with whatever was required, from long-range shooting (Leo made eight three-pointers) to an aggressive, swarming defense that hassled the Caravan into a slew of turnovers.
Mt. Carmel guard DeAndre Craig was as good as advertised, collecting 21 points with 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.
In a game of runs, Leo put together two that truly mattered. Craig’s three-pointer brought the Caravan within 44-43 late in the third period, but the Lions used their press to fuel 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 Mt. Carmel would get.
Jakeem Cole finished with a game-high 23 points, including five straight fourth-quarter free throws that discouraged Mt. Carmel’s thoughts of a comeback. Cam Cleveland had a smooth 14 points, knocking down three three-pointers to go along with four rebounds and three assists. Christian Brockett embellished his nine points with seven assists, Austin Ford collected nine points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, and Jamari Allen contributed meaningful 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 …” Coach Jamal Thompson said. “We did a lot of things well tonight. I’m proud of the effort.”
The only drawback was limited time to enjoy it. The Lions are right back at it 3:30 p.m. Saturday, taking on Pontiac in the Herscher Shootout in Herscher, Illinois.
“If we’re going to do anything in the state tournament, we have to get used to playing downstate wirth downstate referees,” Thompson said in explaining the challenging schedule. “I told the guys to get some rest.”