Reflecting its season-long pattern of taking on elite competition, the Fenwick High School basketball team hosted Simeon on Martin Luther King Day and St. Joseph last Saturday. The Wolverines are ranked among the best teams in the country, while the Chargers are a Chicago Catholic League rival.
Both opponents have storied basketball traditions as Simeon has won seven state championships and St. Joseph has two. Head coach Gene Pingatore, who has coached the latter for about a half-century, is the winningest high school boys basketball coach in state history.
Playing in front of a capacity crowd against Simeon in the Martin Luther King Day City/Suburban Classic, the host Friars struggled scoring througholut Monday's game.
The Wolverines led the entire way, including a 8-0 spurt to start the game. Simeon was ahead 17-7 after one quarter, 25-17 at halftime and 37-28 at the end of the third quarter. The Woverines' superior size, speed and depth wore down Fenwick, which was outscored by nine points in the fourth quarter en route to a 56-39 final score in favor of Simeon.
Bolingbrook held off Morgan Park 75-71 in the opening game of the MLK Day City/Suburban Classic. Joey Saracco scored 18 points for the victorious Raiders. Highly touted sophomore Adam Miller scored a game-high 30 points and made eight 3-pointers for Morgan Park.
Guards DJ Steward and Damari Nixon paced Fenwick with 11 and 10 points respectively, while Iowa State-bound Talen Horton-Tucker scored a game-high 15 points to go with 11 rebounds for Simeon.
The road-weary Wolverines flew back to Chicago after a tough 62-60 loss against Monteverde (Fla.) in Springfield, Massachussets on Saturday.
In addition to their issues on offense, the Friars (13-5) lost their biggest starter, 6-foot-6 senior forward Michael O'Laughlin, for portions of the first half due to foul trouble. The Friars tried different looks defensively, including their patented 1-3-1 half-court zone pressure with the rangy Steward at the top but couldn't overtake the Wolverines (15-3, 4-0 CCL Blue). Overall, Fenwick failed to establish a consistent rhythm on either end of the floor.
This is the second time Fenwick has hosted Simeon on Martin Luther King day
In the teams' first memorable meeting in 2016, Fenwick guard Mike Smith (now at Columbia University) turned in the definitive performance of his stellar high school career with 38 points in a 71-68 victory.
Considering the allure of testing themselves against Simeon, it would have been understandable if the Friars had overlooked Friday's opponent.
But fortunately, playing in the Chicago Catholic League Blue Conference does not allow for any such luxury. With teams such as DePaul Prep, St. Rita, and Brother Rice, Fenwick must make sure it brings a strong effort every time in order to win games.
And so it was when the Friars hosted the aforementioned Pingatore and St. Joseph. The weather may have been frosty outside, but the action was hot inside as Fenwick prevailed 60-46.
Pingatore, a keen veteran coach, knows a good team when he sees one. He was impressed with the Friars.
"They're a very good team," he said. "They're solid and play well together, and that's really important. They've got a superstar that can score and they're tough to beat."
The superstar Pingatore referred to is Steward, who led the Friars in scoring with 17 points. One of Illinois' top prospects in the Class of 2020, Steward continues to have a solid season.
"It was a great win in the Catholic League Blue for us tonight," Steward said. "It's a great booster for the game on Monday. Hopefully, we can play as hard in that game as we did tonight."
Under coach Rick Malnati, Fenwick has developed a reputation for playing good fundamental defense, and it was on display Friday as the Friars held the Chargers without a basket for almost six minutes in the opening quarter, which ended with a 16-12 Fenwick lead.
Steward had 10 points in the first quarter, but did not score in the second. However, the Friars got contributions from seniors Billy Bruce, Sam Daniels, and Michael O'Laughlin to increase the lead to 29-22 at the half.
"It was a good team win," said O'Laughlin, who had 12 points and 7 rebounds on the evening. "I thought we stuck together, especially towards the end. In the third quarter, we started strong but then slumped. But in the fourth, we came together and closed it out."
The Friars scored four points in the third quarter's opening minute, which caused Pingatore to call an immediate timeout. St. Joseph responded with a 12-1 scoring run to pull within 34-31 at around the three-minute mark. But Steward quelled the Chargers by scoring seven points, and Fenwick took a 42-35 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Then the Friars went on a 10-0 scoring run midway through the final quarter to take a 54-39 lead and put away St. Joseph.
"I was glad to be able to finally make a three tonight," said Bruce (9 points, 6 rebounds), who had been in an extended drought as the Friars' best outside shooter. "The threes haven't been falling for me and it was good to make one. Hopefully I can keep it going."
Damari Nixon added nine points and Sam Daniels contributed seven points off the bench. Nixon had a scary collision under the Fenwick basket late in the game and was taken out, but it did not seem to be serious according to Malnati.
Jordan Boyd led St. Joseph (10-6, 2-1 in CCL Blue) with 17 points. Joffari Brown added 12 points, and Jalen Boyd had 8 rebounds for the Chargers.
Despite the win, Malnati was concerned about a lack of solid defensive rebounding as the Chargers wound up with numerous offensive rebounds.
"Every time we had a chance to extend the lead, we gave up second shots," he said. "You can't guard offensive rebounds. You can guard in half-court sets, but you can't guard offensive rebounds. We've got to do a better job of boxing out."
Added Bruce, "We've got to work on our defense for the upcoming games, especially defensive rebounding. That's what we're focusing on. When we play good defense, it transitions well to our offensive game."
With games against rival Oak Park and River Forest, Whitney Young, Bogan, Benet, St. Joseph and Simeon already in the books this season, Fenwick welcomes the challenges of a rigorous schedule. The Friars certainly will be battle-tested when the Class 4A playoffs begin.
"These games are fun to play and we'll see what we've got," Malnati said. " We want to compete and try to play the best possible schedule we can."
Fenwick faces another pair of very good opponents this weekend. The Friars visit St. Rita on Friday, Jan. 19 (7 p.m. tip-off) and play Morgan Park on Saturday, Jan. 20 (5:30 p.m.) at Glenbard East.
Morgan Park defeated Fenwick 69-67 in the Class 3A state final last year. Steward turned in a remarkable performance against the Mustangs, scoring 26 points on 10-for-10 shooting.
In addition to the boys games over the weekend, Fenwick honored former Friar basketball greats Erin Lawless (#34), Tricia Liston (#32) and Deverreaux Peters (#14) by retiring their jerseys on Saturday, Jan. 13 before the Fenwick vs. Stevenson game.
-Marty Farmer contributed to this story.
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