By Marty Farmer
Even with the return of several starters off last season's 18-9 squad, it's going to take some time for the Fenwick boys basketball team to reach its full potential. The players are still getting acclimated to new head coach Rick Malnati's system and philosophy, and the Friars are also playing without the considerable talents of 6-4 forward/Northwestern commit Scott Lindsey (injury).
On Saturday morning, however, Fenwick took another step in the right direction, despite losing 62-57 to Normal U-High in the opening game of the Chicago Elite Classic, held at the UIC Pavilion. Serving as a high school hoops showcase event, the CEC featured 16 players rated in the ESPN 100 and 14 outstanding teams from five states.
"I think it was a winnable game against a very good team," Malnati said about the Normal U-High matchup. "The other thing is when you play in big-time events like this one, sometimes you have to experience and play in it once before you win.
"But it was a great week for us. We took care of business by getting a conference win over a good De La Salle team [Dec. 5]. Then we had some fun playing against excellent competition at the Chicago Elite Classic."
Against Normal U-High, a runner-up in the Class 2A IHSA state playoffs in 2012, the Friars (3-2) had an excellent opportunity to claim the leadoff game of the event. Trailing the Pioneers 50-41 with 7:04 remaining in the fourth quarter, Fenwick went on a 12-2 run to take 53-52 lead with 4:28 left in the game. Two baskets by 6-8 center Dan Dwyer and four free throws by sophomore point guard Mike Smith triggered the Friars' timely spurt. Several key blocks however from Ohio State-bound Keita Bates-Diop, who finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks, turned away the Friars' bid for a comeback victory.
Dwyer recorded a double-double, with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and senior forward Tom Planek contributed nine points and seven boards. Smith (12 points, five assists) and fellow guard Keshaun Smith (10 points, seven rebounds) also paced Fenwick.
While Bates-Diop clearly is the top player for Normal U-High (6-0), Malik Wildermuth (10 points, six rebounds), Joe Johnson (eight points, six rebounds) and Riley Hamilton (nine points, three rebounds) provided solid support.
The Friars played well early, leading 15-13 after one quarter and also shot very well from the free throw line (20 of 24, 83.3 percent) for the game. Underclassmen like sophomores Mike Smith and swingman Mike Ballard, along with promising 6-3 freshman Jamal Nixon, gained valuable experience playing in a premier event in a college basketball arena.
Fenwick earned a split of games last week with its 67-55 win over visiting De La Salle (Dec. 5) in a highly anticipated Chicago Catholic League matchup. Mike Smith turned in his best varsity performance to date with a career-high 24 points, six rebounds and four steals to power the Friars' victory.
"I came out strong and scored 10 points in the first quarter, which really built my confidence," Mike Smith said. "We played great defense and executed the plays we needed to in order to win the game."
The steady Planek added 16 points and 12 rebounds and Dwyer netted nine points against the Meteors. The continued development of both post players (particularly with Lindsey out likely till at least January) is of paramount importance for the Friars.
"I can't be happier with Tom Planek and his development from the summer until now. He's just been playing unbelievable for us," Malnati said. "I thought the brightest spot of the U-High game was how well Danny Dwyer played in the second half. It looked like he found his stride and was as comfortable on the court as he's been all year."