By Dan McGrath

If ever an eight-point loss felt like a victory …

The Carver Military Academy basketball team took the floor against Leo with unimaginably heavy hearts on Wednesday. Coach Johnnail Evans died over the weekend, succumbing to an illness that had kept him away from the team in recent weeks.

Leo gave Carver the option of postponing the game, rescheduling it or skipping it altogether, but the Challengers opted to play, in part because it was the first game of an experimental Public League-Catholic League tripleheader at St. Rita, but mostly because they wanted to honor their longtime coach.

And they almost pulled it off.

Only the Carver kids know if they were emotionally spent, but they didn’t have much left by the fourth quarter as poor shooting and a raft of turnovers enabled the Lions (6-9) to escape with a 58-50 victory.

Leo achieved a third straight win for the first time since the 2021-22 season despite being shorthanded. Coach Jamille Ridley had freshman guards Karon Shavers, Brian Kizer, Tyrell Keys and Brandon Gandy play in a conflicting frosh-soph tournament at Collins High School.

“It’s important to keep that young group together, get them some experience and confidence,” he explained.

Maybe so, but the absence of their ballhandling was a factor as the Lions were guilty of 23 turnovers, many of those errors unforced. They were also indifferent rebounders for much of the afternoon and missed 13 of 26 free throws.

Thus it was not a strong effort, though Leo did get double-figures scoring from juniors Marlo Moore (15 points), Emmanuel Walker (11) and Neil Anderson (10). Freshman Nate Stephens had 10 points with seven rebounds.

Jamari Miller scored 14 for Carver. Now that it’s a military school, the successors to such previous Carver greats as Cazzie Russell, Terry Cummings and Tim Hardaway will be  finding their way to Simeon, Kenwood, Curie and the other Public League powerhouses. But, playing on heart, these Challengers gave an inspiring account of themselves.

Leo is off until Tuesday, January 9 when it resumes Catholic League play against Marmion Academy (7-9) in Aurora. The Cadets’ 58-28 thumping of the Lions last season marked the first time they had beaten Leo in school history.