There were a lot of tears in the eyes of players and spectators alike Saturday night at Fenwick High School.
The emotions weren’t a result of a win or loss, but rather the completion of the first annual John Malone Thanksgiving Tournament, which the host Friars won with a 4-0 record, capped by Saturday’s 60-43 victory over Morton.
The tournament is named in memory of former Fenwick captain and 2011 graduate John Malone, who died in a car accident while a student at Indiana University.
“It was just a really special night,” Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. “We honored the family and John’s legacy before the game. The Morton guys took part in that.
“A priest who had been one of John’s coaches said a prayer and Mr. Malone came into the locker room afterward and told us how much it meant to have the tournament named after his son.”
No doubt John Malone would be proud of how his alma mater performed in his honor. The Friars rolled to easy victories over three Chicago Public League teams, starting with a 75-36 drubbing of Manley and continuing with a 74-55 defeat of Farragut and a 70-45 demolition of Hope.
“It kind of surprised me where we’re at,” Malnati said. “The kids have been talking about what is a good shot and what’s a bad shot. They picked up on that quickly.
“And we’re focusing a lot on defense. We’ve got a lot of kids who have different strengths and we’re trying to put kids in position to succeed.”
The Friars seem to be in position to win whenever the ball is in point guard Mike Smith’s hands.
Smith had a breakout offensive game against Morton (3-1), erupting for a game-high 24 points, including four three-pointers, to go with five rebounds, four assists and three steals. The pass-first junior is beginning to realize how he can fill up the scorebook with jump shots.
“I think [Morton] questioned his shooting ability and they were running under the screens,” Malnati said. “He made them pay.”
The Mustangs raced out to a 15-7 lead, only to see Smith retaliate by scoring seven straight points.
“I think Mike is a better shooter than he thinks he is, which is unusual – to have a coach think a guy is better than the player thinks he is,” Malnati said. “He’s always been able to rely on being the fastest kid on the floor and he always can take the ball to the basket. He did that but he was also pulling up and knocking down jumpers.”
With six players averaging between seven and 13 points, the Friars have been impressively balanced offensively, but the defense has been even better.
Never was that more evident than in the second quarter against the Mustangs, who mustered only two points and saw Harvard-bound 6-7 star Weisner Perez pick up three fouls as Fenwick grabbed a 27-17 halftime lead.
“[Perez] is a phenomenal athlete,” Malnati said. “Jamal [Nixon] did a great job of guarding him and we took a couple of charges.”
Perez finished with 15 points and seven rebounds to lead Morton. Nixon had 11 points and six rebounds for the Friars, while forward Mike Ballard sank a three-pointer to spark a 15-6 run in the fourth quarter after Morton had pulled within five.
Ballard had only six points but was an offensive force earlier in the tournament, recording games of 11, 16 and 20 points. All in all, it was a great way to begin a new Thanksgiving tradition.
“It was a special event for Fenwick and what Fenwick is about,” Malnati said. “There were 10 people from the community that wrote checks for the tournament to happen. It was a spectacular outpouring of support.”