By Dan McGrath

Fenwick has been a Catholic League basketball powerhouse for much of this  century, but the Leo Lions owned a three-game winning streak over the Friars before losing by one on CCL Player of the Year Bryce Hopkins’ free throw with no time remaining in overtime last March in Oak Park.

Hopkins has moved on to the University of Kentucky, and the Friars’ adjustment to life without the long-and-strong, all-purpose forward has been complicated by Coach Staunton Peck’s departure for another job and a couple of football stars’ decision to bypass their senior year of hoops.

So it was that Fenwick was an uncommonly ordinary 4-5 in the Catholic League and a puzzling 6-11 overall when it took the court at Leo on Tuesday, Feb. 1. That four of those losses had come by nine points total should have been enough to keep the Lions’ focus intact lest it wander toward Friday night’s Alumni Night showdown with fellow CCL unbeaten Brother Rice.

Trap game? To be sure. But the Lions (16-3, 10-0) managed to sneak away with a 48-40 victory, overcoming a 33-percent shooting night that featured about 10 missed layups and reached its nadir during a 1-for-14, two-point third quarter.

“And somehow we won,” Coach Jamal Thompson said, sounding genuinely surprised. “But I told the kids that if we play like that against Rice, we’re liable to get run out of our own gym.”

Leo was at its layup-creating, three-pointer-draining best in seizing a 21-12 first-quarter lead. But the Friars, playing with nothing to lose, went to a jumbo defensive package that blocked off every angle to the basket and yet was quick enough to get out and contest three-point shots—Leo didn’t make one after nailing three in the first period.

Fenwick crept back into the game as shot after shot failed to drop for the Lions. But even with bulky freshman Nathaniel Marshall proving to be a load inside, the turnover-prone Friars—21 for the night—didn’t have the firepower to capitalize on Leo’s misfires. They scored but four points of their own in that ennui-inducing third quarter, and two in the final two minutes as Leo ran down the clock and used a Tyler Smith layin and two Cameron Cleveland free throws to lock up a fifth straight win.

Jakeem Cole, coming off a 50-point weekend, scored all of his game-high 15 points in the first half. Austin Ford had eight points and nine rebounds. Cleveland had eight points, six rebounds and four assists.

Fenwick’s Marshall scored 14 on 7-for-10 shooting, putbacks and layups exclusively. He was one of three freshmen who played major minutes for the Friars.

“I don’t know what it was,” Thompson said, at a loss to explain Leo’s struggles after standout performances against Loyola and Mount Carmel. “I just know we have to be better, better focused.”

The matchup of junior guards—the Crusaders’ Ahmad Henderson and Leo’s Cole and Tyler Smith—will make for an intriguing storyline.

“Rice is tough,” Thompson said. “They’ve got some size, they’ve got some shooters—they’re tough.”

Most nights, so is Leo. Bring it on.