By Dan McGrath

Illinois Lutheran, Grant Park, Newark … the three-game diet of cupcakes on which the Leo Lions had feasted left them ill-equipped to deal with the gristle and grit they encountered from Chicago Public League campaigner Fenger in the title game of the IHSA Class 1-A Ottawa Marquette Sectional on Friday, March 6.

Self-inflicted mistakes were the story in a 56-55 defeat that ended Leo’s season and sent Fenger (20-14) on to the Illinois State Supersectional.

Reaching 20 wins for the fourth time in five years, the Lions finished 20-15. But “what might have been” is the feeling they’ll be left with, and it’s not very satisfying,

“Everybody could have done better tonight, including the coaches,” Leo Coach Jamal Thompson said in a locker room that was library-quiet. “I feel like I let the kids down.”

Thompson didn’t shoot 35 percent for the game, including 4-for-16 on three-pointers. He wasn’t assessed either of the two fourth-quarter technical fouls that gave the Titans four points and two additional possessions and fouled Leo point guard Terrance Ford out of the game. He didn’t grant an all-access pass in the lane to Fenger’s unorthodox lefty Donovan Taylor, who improvised his way to a game-high 20 points and seven assists. He didn’t commit any of Leo’s five fourth-quarter turnovers.

Thompson didn’t allow Willis Baker to sneak into the lane and rebound a missed Fenger free throw that led to an additional possession and a bucket in a one-point game. He wasn’t the victim of a Baker steal that became a three-point play and trimmed Leo’s four-point lead to one on the final play of the third quarter, revitalizing the Titans just when they seemed to be unraveling.

Despite all that, Leo was still in position to win the game after rebounding the second of Dejuan Currie’s two missed free throws with 15 seconds left and Fenger leading 56-55. With Ford having fouled out, Kendale Anderson (16 points) and Tim Howard (12 plus 13 rebounds) were the most logical options. But guard LaShaun Glover barrelled his way into the lane from the baseline and got so jammed up in traffic that he couldn’t get a shot or a pass off and turned the ball over, touching off a delirious celebration on the Fenger sideline while the Lions looked on in stunned disbelief.

Game over.

Season over.

What might have been.

“We certainly had our ups and downs this year,” Thompson said. “We won 20 games against a great schedule. We were 10-5 in the Catholic League. Kendale was a horse all year, and we rode him. Tim played great these last few weeks of the season. I loved coaching these guys, I really did. But it’s hard to think about any of that right now.”

After Kevin Drumgoole suffered a season-ending knee injury, Anderson and Howard were the only seniors who took the floor for the Lions. Thirteen of the 15 players who suited up against Fenger will return next season, and reinforcements will arrive from a sophomore team that was 20-7 overall and 13-2 in the Catholic League.

But, as Thompson noted, it’s hard to think about any of that right now.

“This one’s going to hurt for a while,” he said.