By Dan McGrath

Whenever the history of the Leo Lions’ 2023-24 basketball season is written, the first two games of the IC Catholic Christmas Tournament in Elmhurst will be recorded as two that got away from them.

Leo staged a spirited rally to overcome an 11-point third-quarter deficit in the opener against Willowbrook on Tuesday, but couldn’t protect a hard-earned four-point lead down the stretch. As the Lions were going scoreless over the final 2 ½ minutes, the Warriors closed with a 7-0 run that earned them a 54-51 victory.

The script was flipped in Round 2 Wednesday against Public League campaigner Taft. Solid play at both ends helped Leo build a 33-26 halftime lead, but a deer-in-headlights third quarter and some deft three-point shooting by Frank Paszkowski brought the Eagles back into the game.

With 11 seconds remaining, Paszkowski split two free throws. Freshman Nate Stephens snagged the rebound of his miss and got the ball to fellow freshman Karon Shavers, who weaved his way through the Taft defense, slid into the lane and flipped up a contested left-handed layup, only to see it roll off the rim.

Taft 59, Leo 57.

“I’m getting a little tired of being in the woods–woulda done this, woulda done that,” Coach Jamille Ridley said after his Lions fell to 3-9. “Both these games were winnable. We’ve got to learn how to win them.” 

Thursday is an off day for the tournament. Leo will return to action on Friday at 4:30 p.m. against South Shore Prep (5-11), which is also 0-2 through two rounds. 

Losses can be learning experiences, and there were things for the Lions to build on: Junior Emmanuel Walker buried six three-pointers and scored 20 points against Willowbrook, with fellow junior Stephen Barze working his way to 14. Leo closed the third quarter with an 11-0 run fashioned on Shavers’ three-point play, two Walker free throws in response to a Willowbrook technical foul and two Walker three-pointers. 

Junior Marlo Moore collected a season-best 14 points against Taft, and Stephens at times was dominant inside with 13 points and eight rebounds.

But there were recurring problem areas as well. The Lions were badly outrebounded in both games—second, third and even fourth chances were available all too often, and Taft’s Eric Ramirez, a 5-foot-10 guard, had three putback baskets.

Thirty-seven combined turnovers translates into too many wasted possessions in two tight games, and 51 percent free-throw shooting—including 11 misses against Taft … another example of opportunities squandered.

“If we make three or four of those free throws, we win the game,” Ridley said.

That said, his mood was upbeat despite back-to-back tough losses.

“We can work on rebounding, we can work on taking better care of the ball, we can certainly work on free throw shooting,” Ridley said. “But we played hard and we competed, and those are things you can’t teach.

“As long as we have those, we’ll be fine. We’re building something here.”