By Dan McGrath

For as many grind-it-out games as the Leo Lions have played this basketball season, they were entitled to one like Tuesday’s 60-27 thumping of Providence-St. Mel in a Catholic League crossover on the West Side. 

A breather, yes. But to call it a laugher is to diminish the effort that the Knights put forth. Not much bigger than a freshman “B” squad, they competed to the final horn. They were simply outsized, outmanned and outgunned. 

With Sunday’s game in the Chops Billinger shootout lost to opponent CVS’ transportation trouble, the Lions (10-11, 3-5) hadn’t played since Friday, so they had their legs. And even with three rotation players sidelined, they had plenty of bodies—Coach Jamille Ridley used all 11 who dressed and nine of them scored.

That freshman Karon Shavers (17 points) and junior Stephen Barze (14) were the leaders was encouraging—points had been hard to come by for the duo in recent games as their shots simply failed to drop.

But they were loose and into the flow of a free-and-easy game that resembled a pickup run on an outdoor court in mid-summer. Barze’s five buckets included two emphatic dunks that brought the crowd to life and contributed to the playground vibe inside the gym.

Robert Hughes Jr., a 6-foot-1 forward with both muscles and moves, kept the Knights in the game with eight points in the first quarter. But, sensing that he was the source of all Providence offense, the Lions stationed a bigger body between Hughes and the basket thereafter, and he managed just two additional points despite non-stop effort. 

It’s back to the grind on Friday, as the Lions travel to DePaul Prep seeking to end a five-game losing streak against the Rams. The task is anything but easy: DePaul Prep is unbeaten in Catholic League play and 19-2 overall, its only losses to Normal Community and Homewood-Flossmoor. The 10th-ranked team in the Chicago Sun-Times’ Super 25 area rankings plays maniacal defense, having held 10 opponents below 30 points.  

The Lions have first-hand experience against that defense, having taken a 51-28 spanking last season from the eventual Class 2-A state champions, who have moved up to Class 3-A. 

Leo is a much-improved team this season. Friday’s game will be useful in determining how much.