By David Gross

The young Leo Lions basketball team showed some grit in reaching the .500 mark for the first time this season by turning back Montini 61-57 on Wednesday, Feb. 24 in the Lions Den.

Montini came into the game with a 1-5 record, but that’s deceiving: The Broncos’ previous opponents included such Catholic League powerhouses as Fenwick, Brother Rice, Mt. Carmel and St. Rita. Their lone victory, over Loyola Academy, suggests they have potential.

But Leo (3-3) forced Montini into 20 turnovers, offsetting 15 by the Lions. The Broncos also enjoyed a 32-21 rebounding advantage, including 12 offensive rebounds, but they couldn’t convert enough of those second-chance opportunities. They also missed nine free throws. 

Leo got another solid game from its young guard line of sophomores Ja’keem Cole and Tyler Smith and freshman Christian Brockett, and one of the night’s more encouraging developments was forward Rob Smith’s continued strong play inside. After establishing season-highs with 13 points and eight rebounds against Marmion on Monday, the 6-foot-2 junior came back with 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks against Montini. 

Tyler Smith scored 12 points with five rebounds and four steals. Brockett also scored 12, on 5-for-9 shooting, with six rebounds and two steals, while Cole contributed 10 points, two rebounds and three steals. Junior Cameron Cleveland managed eight points after averaging 19 in the previous three games.

Forward Andrew Stokes led Montini with 16 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. 

Leo’s sophomore team improved to 4-1 with a two-point victory over Montini’s sophs, 49-47.

With a freshman, two sophomores and three juniors in the rotation, the young Lions are clearly improving and building some momentum with three wins in their last four games.

Now comes the hard part: Loyola at home on Friday, Feb. 26, followed by road games at Mount  Carmel (March 1), Fenwick (March 3) and Brother Riace (March 5). The St. Joe’s game, postponed earlier because the Chargers were in COVID quarantine, will be played at Leo on Saturday, March 6, with a 3 p.m. tip.