By Marty Farmer
When the final buzzer sounded of the Fenwick High School boys basketball team's 60-46 win against North Lawndale in the Fenwick Sectional final, Friars' coach Rick Malnati simply sat in his chair on the bench.
While the players cut down the net, sharing the moment with a delirious congregation of Fenwick students and fans, the architect of the team's success just soaked it all in.
Malnati's facial expression suggested a triple-double emotionally of happiness, pride and relief.
"In the four years I've been at Fenwick, we keep getting to sectional finals and we finally got over the hump," Malnati said. "We played well in spurts and we played bad in spurts, but our kids kept their composure. North Lawndale is a hard to play against and we only had a day of preparation."
The evening offered Fenwick several indelible memories. During the aforementioned net-cutting moment, Fenwick senior Jamal Nixon was serenaded with "Happy Birthday." He's the winningest player in program history with 100 wins, the same total of victories for Malnati at Fenwick.
"The fact that tonight was Jamal's birthday and his 100th win is really special," Malnati said. "He's a great player and teammate."
During the game, the Friars produced several incredible highlights including a vicious block well above the rim by Nixon and three dunks by senior point guard Jacob Keller. Against UIC Noble Prep in the King Regional final on March 3, the high-flying Keller also threw down a trio of slams.
"Those kinds of plays like dunks gets everybody up," Keller said. "We need those kinds of plays to keep our energy high."
The Friars had an auspicious start against the visiting Phoenix with an 11-2 run to open the first quarter. Junior guard AJ Nixon and freshman guard DJ Steward scored five and four points, respectively, to fuel Fenwick.
North Lawndale responded with an 11-2 run before a breakaway layup by Steward gave the Friars a 15-13 lead after one quarter.
The Phoenix took their first lead of the game, 18-17, midway through the second quarter on a layup by Leonard Caples off a nice pass from senior guard Martrell Barnes. With the teams trading baskets the rest of the quarter, senior guard Carlos Hines made a pair of free throws after a controversial technical foul call against Fenwick to put the Phoenix up 27-26 at halftime.
Reminiscent of their impressive play at the start of the game, the Friars went on a 15-0 run to open the third quarter. Five players scored for Fenwick, which suddenly held a 41-27 advantage with 4:24 left in the third quarter.
"In the second half, we just tried to force them to make tough shots and decisions," Keller said. "We did a better job taking care of the basketball and rebounding. The key for us is our defense and the then the offense will come."
Employing a combination of man-to-man defense and a 1-3-1 zone defense in the half-court has served Fenwick well in the postseason. With his athleticism and anticipation, Steward excels at the top of the 1-3-1 with players like Keller and Jamal Nixon also capable of steals.
Steward, a precocious freshman who has been nothing short of spectacular all season, led the Friars in scoring with a game-high 21 points.
"It's been a great experience as a freshman playing on this team," Steward said. "Playing in a sectional is super fun. The guys are really supportive and I couldn't have done as well this season without them."
North Lawndale whittled the deficit to 49-42 in the fourth quarter. That's the closest the Phoenix would get, however, as Keller dunked three times and the rest of his teammates played well over the final six minutes of the game.
"In the second half, we thought they were going to stay in a zone defense but they went man," Malnati said. "We made adjustments against the zone, but our kids are pretty experienced and adapted well. We got a little tight in the fourth quarter, but you have to stay with it and you can't get tired on a night like this one."
Keller finished with 17 points, while Jamal Nixon (8 points) and AJ Nixon (7 points) also played well offensively.
Barnes paced North Lawndale with 15 points.
Fenwick (28-4) faces St. Viator in the Class 3A quarterfinals Tuesday, March 14 at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates. Tip off is 6 p.m.
St. Viator edged North Chicago 76-74 in overtime to win the Antioch Sectional championship.
"I don't want this to end because I'll miss these kids," said Malnati about the Friars, who are on a 15-game winning streak. "This sectional title also has the fingerprints of our past three teams on it. I hope all those guys feel like they are a part of this because they deserve it."
Keller is highly motivated to keep the Friars' state title hopes alive for another reason.
"I know the football guys on our team want to keep this going," Keller said. "We didn't like the way our football season ended (controversial 18-17 loss to Plainfield North in Class 7A state semifinals). Ever since November 19, I've been waiting for this."