By Dan McGrath

For the first quarter of their Joliet Supersectional matchup with Catholic League rival DePaul Prep on Monday, the Leo Lions might well have been auditioning for the NBA playoffs, never mind the Illinois state tournament.

Their constant-motion, quick-strike offense produced shot after makeable shot. Their press forced six turnovers. They led 22-7 and had the Rams back on their heels.

But DePaul Prep isn’t Harlan or U-High or any of the other four opponents Leo handled with 30-point dispatch in the first two rounds of postseason play. The Rams had come to play, to compete, and an early 15-point deficit was a minor irritation, not a fatal turn of the screw. 

They threw up a defensive blanket that smothered the Lions as thoroughly as they’d been smothered in the teams’ regular-season meeting back on Feb. 15. They pulled even late in the third quarter, seized a lead that grew to five points early in the fourth and wound up prevailing 50-43 in overtime after Leo failed to convert two opportunities in the final 10 seconds of regulation and managed just four points in the extra period.

Thus it’s DePaul Prep (26-5) headed for the IHSA Class 2-A semifinals at the University of Illinois this weekend, while Leo closes the books on a 25-5 season. It produced Catholic League, regional and sectional titles and memorable moments of blissful satisfaction, but it fell short of the ultimate prize for three reasons: The Lions couldn’t keep Jaylan McElroy (18 points) off the backboards, they couldn’t keep Peyton Kamin (13 points) off the free-throw line, and they managed just 21 points in 28 minutes after that electrifying 22-point first quarter. 

“This is not how we wanted it to end, obviously, but it doesn’t take anything away from the season we had,” Coach Jamal Thompson said after consoling and thanking every player individually in a locker room as somber as a cemetery. “They gave us everything they had. They left it on the floor every night. I could not have asked any more of them. I can’t put into words how proud I am.”

When Jerry Tarkanian coached them, UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels played what was known as the “amoeba defense”—you might get past one man, but another would immediately materialize to block your path to the basket and/or challenge your shot.

Absent a tricky nickname, DePaul’s defense employs similar tactics with similar results. The shots the Lions normally take and make with aplomb simply weren’t there: Leo shot 14-for-54 (26 percent) during a long, tough night, and that includes an 8-for-14 first quarter. From the second quarter on the Lions were an astonishing 6-for-40, or 15 percent. It surely wasn’t for lack of effort, but they scored 81 points total in their two DePaul losses after averaging 65 against everybody else.  

“Numbers don’t mean a thing at this point,” Thompson said. “It just hurts.”

It might hurt a little less to look ahead—Catholic League Player of the Year Jakeem Cole returns, along with standout guards Tyler Smith and Christian Brockett. Three useful reserves are back as well, and the sophomore team’s top scorer/rebounder will join the varsity roster next season.

But it’s best not to look ahead before acknowledging the contributions of departing seniors Cameron Cleveland, Austin Ford and Jamari Allen.

Cleveland, still a bit gimpy on a sprained knee, closed out his Leo career with 13 points, including a game-tying three-pointer that rejuvenated the Lions when they’d been left for dead late in the fourth quarter. Ford’s seven points and six rebounds represented a typically active night for a 6-foot-2 “big man” who gave away size to every opponent he faced this season. Allen’s willingness to mix it up inside and guard any position on the floor gave Leo a toughness that can’t be measured in stats. 

“Cam’s leadership, Austin’s fight, Jamari’s energy … I love those guys, and we’re going to miss them,” Thompson said. “But they started something at Leo, and they’ll be able to look back and say that—they started something at Leo. This is only the beginning. We’re sad and disappointed and hurt right now, but mark my words, this is only the beginning.”