Friars hold off scrappy Ramblers in CCL semis

Jamal Nixon, Keller and Steward step up; St. Joseph next in CCL final

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Patrick Skrine

Contributing Reporter

Fenwick senior basketball standout Jamal Nixon was honored before Wednesday's Chicago Catholic League semifinal against Loyola Academy.

Nixon, who has signed with Minnesota State, received a standing ovation for becoming the winningest player in Fenwick boys basketball history. Fenwick alum and former Duke University/NBA star Corey Maggette previously held the coveted honor.

The ceremony infused even more energy into the always-competitive Friars and their vocal fans.

In control most of the game, Fenwick led by 12 points at the end of third quarter. The Friars struggled offensively in the fourth quarter, however, before managing to hold off the Ramblers for a 49-47 win.

The Friars started the game well with a 3-pointer from freshman sensation DJ Steward and two treys from senior point guard Jacob Keller. Fenwick also turned up the heat defensively, forcing Loyola to operate primarily on the perimeter.

Despite heavy pressure, the Ramblers withstood the Friars' relentless on-ball defense by making some tough contested buckets in the paint plus a timely long ball from the corner.

Fenwick led 14-12 after one quarter.

The Friars extended their lead to 27-17 at halftime with excellent defense and rebounding. Using their athleticism to great effect, the Friars had opportunities to put the game away early, but careless turnovers kept Loyola within striking distance.

Fenwick sophomore Damari Nixon, who has been playing very well lately, scored six points to give the Friars momentum heading into the break.

 "I thought we played good," Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. "We guarded them, we moved the ball and we shot it in. I would have preferred we got the ball inside more, but we got off to a good start."

While the first half belonged to the Friars' promising underclassmen Steward (8 points in first half) and Damari Nixon, the Ramblers' Ramar Evans stole the spotlight in the second half.

Running their offense through Evans, Loyola controlled the tempo. Evans, who finished with a game-high 23 points, scored repeatedly in the third quarter. To the Friars' credit, however, they maintained a 41-29 heading into the fourth quarter.

Evans stayed hot in the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer and 3-point play at the rim during an 8-0 spurt. Fenwick committed multiple turnovers during the Ramblers' run.

After Loyola whittled the score to 47-44 late in the fourth quarter, Keller did what he does best. The 6-foot-3 senior found his way into the paint and converted a huge bucket to give the Friars a 49-44 advantage with less than a minute remaining in the game.

Loyola junior Kevin Cunningham, who struggled from the field all night, made a clutch 3-pointer to pull the Ramblers within 49-47.

With 23 seconds left, Steward had the ball in his hands. Instead of getting fouled and going to the charity stripe, the typically poised Steward made an uncharacteristic mistake by rifling the ball out of bounds on an attempted pass to junior Billy Bruce.

For the first time, Loyola had a great opportunity to win the game.

Evans drove to the basket with five seconds to go in the game under pressure from Keller. Surrounded by four Fenwick defenders, Evans forced a contested lay-up that was stripped by Keller.

Keller was fouled but missed a 1-and-1 free throw with 1.6 seconds remaining. A shot that Keller usually hits came off the rim and landed in the hands of no one else other than Evans. He threw up a shot from beyond half-court which barely missed going into the basket.

Steward scored a team-high 17 for Fenwick, with Keller contributing 11 points.

While a win is always welcomed in the Chicago Catholic League, Malanti wasn't pleased how the Friars closed out the game.

"They started driving us and we didn't guard," Malnati said. "We turned the ball over offensively and let them have offensive rebounds. We didn't play the same way we played to get the lead."

Despite a sloppy fourth quarter against Loyola, the Friars remain a top contender to win the Class 3A state title. Fenwick is on a 9-game winning streak and has won 12 of 13 games in 2017.

The Friars (22-4) takes on St. Joseph (15-10) Friday, Feb. 17 for the CCL championship. Tip-off is 8 p.m. at Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

In their first meeting this season (Jan. 27), Fenwick cruised past the Chargers 66-51 in Westchester. The Friars also won two of three games last season although the Chargers won the Class 3A Westinghouse Sectional final meeting 59-55 between the rivals.

 -Marty Farmer contributed to this story.

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