By Marty Farmer
Fenwick boys basketball coach Rick Malnati believes the Friars' prized freshman DJ Steward passed "first-year" status quite some time ago during the regular season.
Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin must feel the same way about the Mustangs' Nimari Burnett.
On Saturday, the pair of precocious freshmen dominated the action during the Mustangs' 69-67 overtime win against Fenwick in the Class 3A state final at the Peoria Civic Center.
Steward shot a perfect game, going 10-for-10 from the field (including a pair of 3-pointers) and 2-for-2 at the free throw line to finish with a game-high 26 points. He also had seven rebounds and four steals in one of the best performances by a freshman in state finals history.
But Burnett was arguably better.
He went 9-for-15 on field goal attempts and dashed the Friars' state title hopes by sinking 6 of 10 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. Burnett was particularly clutch in overtime with a trio of 3-pointers as the Mustangs outscored Fenwick 14-12 to secure their third state championship in five years.
"We knew that No. 10 [Burnett] could shoot from distance," Malnati said. "The first time we lost him; the second time it wasn't a great shot. I was hopeful they would take a bad shot; it turned out to be a dagger."
Remember the date, March 18, 2017. A Steward-Burnett rivalry may have been born.
While the Friars and Mustangs fought back and forth most of the game, the former appeared on track to earn its first state championship with an auspicious start in the fourth quarter.
Leading 42-40, Fenwick went on a nine-point run to extend the lead to 51-40 with 5:34 left in regulation. The key play of the run occurred when Fenwick senior point guard Jacob Keller was emphatically blocked on a layup, got the ball back only to miss a dunk, and finally scored on a third attempt.
Symbolically, the play suggested that the Friars wanted the win just a bit more.
However, Morgan Park has championship mettle which they proved the remainder of the fourth quarter.
The Mustangs responded with a run of their own to whittle the deficit to 54-53 at the 1:19 mark. Cam Burrell made four free throws on the back end of the Morgan Park spurt to tighten the score considerably.
After Keller fouled out with 43.8 seconds left in the game, Marcus Watson made his lone basket to put Morgan Park ahead 55-54.
Fenwick junior AJ Nixon missed a 3-pointer but teammate Mike O'Laughlin pulled down an offensive rebound and was fouled. O'Laughlin split a pair of free throws to tie the game at 55-all.
Both teams had chances to win in the final 17 seconds. Fenwick junior Billy Bruce took a charge against Morgan Park. Steward committed a costly turnover, however, on the Friars' final possession with 6.7 seconds left. Burnett launched a half-court shot that just missed being a game-winner as the buzzer sounded.
Fittingly, he was defended by Steward on the Hail Mary.
In overtime, the combination of Burnett's hot shooting from 3-point range and the loss of Keller and Jamal Nixon (both fouled out) proved too much to overcome for Fenwick.
"We're very disappointed because we had a chance to win a state championship and we didn't make plays down the stretch," Malnati said. "We're not disappointed in anything else. We're not disappointed in our effort, not disappointed in our team. We had an opportunity and we let it slip through our hands."
Fenwick junior forward AJ Nixon played well with 14 points (4-for-9 on 3-pointers) and seven rebounds. AJ Nixon, who will be one of the team's top players next year, enjoyed the entire postseason experience.
"My favorite game was winning our sectional final game against Lawndale," AJ Nixon said. "Last year we lost to St. Joes and to me and the guys that were on the team that year, it meant everything in the world to win that game."
Damari Nixon contributed eight points for Fenwick. Jamal Nixon had five points and four rebounds, while Keller finished with eight points and five rebounds.
"People grew 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."
Although Morgan Park had a significant height advantage, the Friars outrebounded the Mustangs 35-31 and outscored them 28-18 in the paint. Fenwick struggled with turnovers (23) and dished out only 12 assists against the Mustangs' pressure defense.
Supporting Burnett, Morgan Park guard Cam Irvin had 12 points, four rebounds and three steals. Melo Burrell (9 points, 10 rebounds) and Henry Lenell (5 points, 8 rebounds) also contributed for the victors.
The Mustangs have been problematic in big games for Fenwick lately. Aside from Saturday's 3A title clash, Morgan Park rocked the Friars 81-55 in the 2016 championship game of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament as well.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Fenwick (30-5) turned in a historic season with a school-record 30 wins, plus the John Malone tourney, Chicago Catholic League North Division, regional, sectional and supersectional championships.
Since Malnati replaced longtime Fenwick coach John Quinn, who did a fine job in his own right, the Friars are playing better than ever.
"These last 3-4 years have been special because now the school is getting recognition for all the hard work this group and the guys before us put in," Damari Nixon said. "It shows that all of our hard is paying off because of all the success we've had these past years.
"Fenwick has always been known for being an excellent academic school, but now we are showing that we can compete with some of the best basketball teams in the state."
The Friars also expressed gratitude for the immense support from the Fenwick community.
"We just would like to really thank the Fenwick community for following us all year and being behind us through everything." O'Laughlin said. "They really made a difference and the players noticed it as well as Coach Malnati. It's pretty special when you get that much support from your school and you end up going downstate."