One of the biggest clichés in basketball is that free throws win games.
They also win tournaments. That was literally true for the Lyons Township High School boys basketball team on Saturday, which used great foul shooting to knock off Fenwick 71-60 and win its own Thanksgiving Tournament for the first time since 2010.
LTHS, Fenwick and Morton all finished the round-robin tournament with 2-1 records; however the host Lions won the championship because they had the highest free-throw percentage. LTHS shot 81 percent from the line over the three games, while Morton made 79 percent.
"It was a fun night," LTHS coach Tom Sloan said. "Free throws won us the game and they officially won us the tournament."
The Lions led Fenwick nearly wire-to-wire but had to withstand a furious rally by the Friars, who cut a 44-27 halftime deficit to 53-45 at the end of the third quarter before tying the game at 56-56 midway through the final stanza.
On the next possession, LTHS guard Harrison Niego drove the lane and was fouled. He made both free throws to put the Lions ahead to stay and fellow junior Jaquan Phipps followed with two more foul shots. LTHS was 12-for-14 from the line in the fourth quarter.
"Their kid made a nice drive to the basket and we didn't take a charge," Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. "But we dug ourselves a pretty big hole. I was proud of how our kids came back."
Sophomore guard Michael Smith paced the Friars with 23 points. Senior forwards Tom Planek and Dan Dwyer tallied 13 points apiece for Fenwick but both fouled out in the fourth quarter. While LTHS flourished at the charity stripe, Fenwick struggled by comparison. The Friars shot just 59 percent from the line in the tourney, and made only 18 of 33 (55 percent) free throws against the Lions.
Fenwick also missed the services of 6-foot-5 star forward Scott Lindsey, who is out with a broken leg. Lindsey, who has declared he'll play for Northwestern next season, was on an unofficial visit at Vanderbilt in early September when he broke both the tibia and fibula in his left leg while playing a pick-up game. A target date for his return remains speculative at this point of the season.
Niego led the Lions with 23 points (8-for-10 shooting), five rebounds and two assists. Phipps and Jimmy Cullen added 11 points apiece and Chris Hester grabbed nine rebounds for the Lions, who bounced back after losing 82-79 in overtime to Morton on Friday. Phipps scored nine of 11 his points in the fourth quarter.
"Coming out of the whole thing 2-1, it's a much better taste in our mouths than after last night's game," Sloan said. "Fenwick is really good. It's a huge win for the kids' confidence to beat a team like that and hold off a big surge to win it."
With or without Lindsey, Sloan knows a win over Fenwick never comes easy.
"It was a great team effort and there was a lot of stuff that didn't show up in the scorebook," Sloan said. "Our kids made a big-time defensive effort making sure they didn't get easy chances at the rim and then we tried to get out and defend the perimeter."
"Their inside guys did a nice job of containing our guys," Malnati said. "They played zone the whole game and that's a good way to win games early on. We've worked mostly on man-to-man offense and I guess that's my fault because we haven't spent a lot of time on zone offense.
"But I'm fine with it. We learned a lot about ourselves and we did some good things in coming back. It's a long season and we're going to be tough to beat by the end of the year."
Earlier in the tournament, Fenwick beat Morton 77-59 and Argo 58-44. LTHS opened with a 65-44 victory over Argo behind Niego's 24 points, but lost to Morton despite 18 points from Omarr Gilbert.
In that game, the Lions fought back from a double-digit deficit, only to squander a five-point lead late in regulation and then a two-point lead in the final minute of overtime.