By Marty Farmer
No matter what level of basketball, conventional wisdom suggests and time has shown a championship team requires two or three great players.
The Fenwick High School boys basketball team certainly has embraced that formula for success with the stellar play of seniors Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon and freshman DJ Steward.
The team's top three players powered the Friars to a hard-fought 67-52 win over Bloomington in the semifinals of the Class 3A state playoffs at Peoria Civic Center on Friday afternoon.
Steward scored a game-high 23 points to go along with eight rebounds and three steals. He shot 10-of -21 from the floor. The Minnesota State-bound Nixon had 18 points, nine rebounds and three steaks, while Keller finished with eight points, eight assists and seven rebounds plus an emphatic dunk with less than a minute to play.
Role players like juniors Billy Bruce, Mike O'Laughlin, AJ Nixon, and sophomore Damari Nixon also contributed for the Friars.
Just one win away from claiming the first state title in program history, the Friars appear to have the perfect balance of talent, teamwork, dedication and intelligence to achieve their dream.
"People have grown into their roles," Jamal Nixon said after the Friars' supersectional win. "We all got better over the year and we don't care who scores, who the star is. We play together and look out for each other and like to see each other succeed. That's the biggest thing. We're unselfish and we have a lot of character."
The Friars' Big Three, however, continually prevented a very talented Bloomington squad from taking control of the game.
With Fenwick holding a 30-23 halftime lead, the Purple Raiders went on an 8-2 run to open the third quarter and pull within 32-31.
The Friars responded with an 11-5 spurt, fueled by five point from Jamal Nixon and a four points from Damari Nixon to enter the fourth quarter with a 43-36 advantage.
Bruce (5 points, 3 rebounds) scored on a breakaway layup to give Fenwick its biggest lead of the game at 45-36 early in the fourth quarter.
Colton Sandage made a 3-pointer to pull Bloomington within 47-40 at 5:42 of the fourth.
Keller repeatedly set up teammates for scores and controlled the tempo the rest of the game as Fenwick outscored the Purple Raiders 20-12 to seal a 67-52 victory.
Sophomore Chris Payton, a major Division I recruit, led Bloomington with 21 points and rebounds despite persistent foul trouble throughout the game. Patrick Fischer added 10 points and five rebounds while teammate Dazon Farris scored nine points.
Fenwick effectively used a mix of man-to-man defense and a 1-3-1 zone defense, limiting Bloomington to 36.4 percent shooting. The victory marked the sixth straight time during this inspired postseason run the Friars have won by 10 points or more.
The Purple Raiders finished the season with a 26-5 record.
Fenwick (30-4), which has won 17 games in a row, advances to Saturday's state title game at 12:45 p.m. against the winner of Morgan Park vs. Sprinfield Lanphier.