By Dan McGrath

Try to envision a nine-point play.

Late in the second quarter of the Leo-Oak Forest game at the Evergreen Park Shootout on Sunday, Feb. 6, Oak Forest’s man-child center Robbie Avila drew a foul while converting a putback basket. Someone in a Leo uniform yapped about the call and was assessed a technical foul.

Avila made his free throw, plus the two Oak Forest was awarded for the technical. The Bengals retained possession and scored again. Leo then turned the ball over as it inbounded, and another Bengals bucket completed a 9-0 run that in a matter of seconds transformed a one-point deficit into an eight-point lead.

It would grow to 12 early in the third period. And, given the energy Leo had expended in subduing Brother Rice less than 48 hours earlier, it would have been understandable if the Lions had submitted to tired legs and gone quietly—Rice had simply run out of gas and lost to Homewood-Flossmoor in the preceding game.

Submit? Not these Lions. They just kept playing, kept hustling, kept pressing, their effort unrelenting. Jakeem Cole’s 13-point third quarter brought them back. When Oak Forest went to a box-and-one to deny Cole the ball, Tyler Smith and Cameron Cleveland took over. Austin Ford’s foul-line jumper tied the game at 65. After Avila missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smith blew by his man and late-arriving help for a layup that put Leo up 67-65 with 14.5 seconds left.

Oak Forest called time, then lined up Taurean Mickens for a three-pointer from the corner that would have restored its lead … if Cleveland hadn’t flown out to block it. Ford was fouled after grabbing the loose ball. Leo was not yet in the bonus, but as they inbounded, the Lions ran a smart play that got Cole loose for a layup and the 69-65 final.

No one in the gym was quite sure how, but Leo is now 18-3 for the season and riding a seven-game winning streak. The Lions are No. 7 in the Chicago Sun-Times metro-area rankings heading into Tuesday night’s showdown at St. Rita (18-8, 9-0 Catholic League). 

“Four quarters, baby,” Coach Jamal Thompson said. “One thing that’s true of this team is we’re always going to play four quarters. We sure did tonight. I’m proud of the effort.”

Oak Forest coach Matt Manzke is the son of Mike Manzke ’68, the third of four Manzke brothers—Eddie ’62, Denny ’63, Mike ’68, Bobby ’70—who comprise the first family of Leo basketball. In Avila he has a weapon as potent as the Lions have seen this season. 

The big kid’s skills and agility match his size (6-feet-8, 240 pounds), and he smoothly bedeviled the Lions with 19 points in the first half. But they doubled up on him in the second and limited him to four as the Bengals sometimes seemed to forget Avila was among them.

Cole’s 23 points give him 110 in his last five games. Smith scored 15, and Cleveland augmented his 17 with three highlight-reel plays.

In the second quarter, he pinned a shot off the backboard, retrieved the carom and initiated a one-man break that resulted in a three-point play when he was fouled while flicking in a short jumper.

In the midst of Leo’s comeback. Cleveland missed the second of two free throws, but tracked down the loose ball in the corner, stepped back and nailed a three-pointer that brought Leo within 65-63.

Finally … each of Mickens’ previous four three-pointers had come from the corner, and a restoration of Oak Forest’s lead seemed inevitable as he lined up an open shot in response to Smith’s go-ahead layup. Somehow, Cleveland got to him, got a hand on the ball … this is a refuse-to-lose Leo team.

“Enjoy this tonight,” Thompson said, “but we’re back to work on Monday. There’s nobody I’d rather beat than St. Rita.”