The Fenwick High School boys basketball team had high expectations entering this season. Sophomore DJ Steward leads a strong group of returnees from last year’s historical team that finished 30-5 and was Class 3A runner-up, the first basketball state trophy in school history for the boys.
However, the Friars’ early schedule this season featured Benet, Young, and Oak Park-River Forest – all highly-rated teams – lined up in a row, and three consecutive losses was the result.
Since starting 3-3, Fenwick had won four games in a row (including a win at Brother Rice on a buzzer-beating 3-point shot by AJ Nixon heading into Friday night’s home game against Mount Carmel. The Friars were seeking to notch another win that would supply further momentum heading into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
Mission Accomplished – in a big way – as Fenwick routed the Caravan 94-45 in Chicago Catholic League Blue play. The win gives the Friars (8-3, 2-0 in Catholic Blue) their fifth straight victory.
“I thought we had a good spurt at the end of the first quarter that lasted for a while,” Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. “We made a lot of shots and got a big lead. We shot the ball well and played halfway decent defense. We’re still a team that needs to continue to improve.”
Malnati’s honest assessment is an example of why he’s regarded as one of the state’s best coaches. Having enjoyed sustained success first at New Trier and now at Fenwick, he’s seen a lot over the years and knows how to win.
At the same time, a good coach only looks good if he has good talent on the roster. Malnati certainly has that with the Friars, notably Steward, AJ Nixon, Damari Nixon, Michael O’Laughlin, and Billy Bruce. Add in promising newcomers like junior Solomon Oraegbu and freshman Bryce Hopkins, and it’s easy to see how the talent and character on the team has manifested itself after the losing streak.
“It’s just maturity,” said Steward, who had a game-high 27 points to pace the Friars. “We have great captains that are being great leaders in practice. We have also worked hard on our defense, and we’ve carried that over into the games.”
“Our main problem was that we weren’t playing as a team earlier in the season,” O’Laughlin added. “But we’re building on that now, both in games and in practice. We’re starting to jell as a team.”
The early stages of Friday night’s game were nip-and-tuck as the Friars and Caravan traded leads. But Fenwick went on a 12-0 run to end the first quarter and built a 21-9 lead. Then the Friars enjoyed another spurt halfway through the second quarter, going on a 19-4 run to take a 47-22 halftime advantage.
One sure sign of Fenwick’s dominance? Steward had 11 points in each of the first two quarters – which matched the Caravan’s team output. After going 10 for 15 from the field (including 5 for 7 from 3-point range), he took a seat on the bench halfway through the 3rd and earned the rest of the night off.
“This game gave us a lot of confidence shooting,” Steward said. “We need to keep shooting shots because they’re eventually going to fall. In the first half, we shot the ball well. In the second half, we fell off a bit, but were able to pick it back up.”
Other notable contributors for Fenwick included Oraegbu with 18 points and five rebounds, Damari Nixon with 11 points, and Hopkins with 10 points and six rebounds.
Frank DiZeo had 15 points and Liam McDonagh 11 to lead the Caravan (1-6, 0-2 in CCL Blue), which did not have a free throw attempt until 1:49 left in the third quarter.
Fenwick at Proviso West tourney for Holidays
The Friars now turn their attention to the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, one of the state’s most prestigious and exciting basketball events. It features several top teams, such as defending 4A champion Whitney Young, defending 2A champion Orr, Homewood-Flossmoor, Hillcrest, Bogan, and Uplift. Malnati and the players know this type of field will present a stern challenge, but at the same time are looking forward to it.
“We’re not exactly where we want to be yet, but we’ll find out more about ourselves after this tournament,” Malnati said. “Proviso West is a major test for everybody. It simulates what the state tournament is going to be like. For us to be successful there, we’re going to have to bring our ‘A’game.”
O’Laughlin added, “We’re looking forward to Proviso West. It’s always a challenge. You get to see how well you match up with good teams. We’re probably going to be an underdog, but we get a chance to surprise some people, which is always fun.”