Fenwick senior guard Mike Smith turned in the definitive performance of his high school career with 38 points as the Friars held on for a 71-68 win against Simeon on Monday afternoon. Scoring via an array of drives to the basket, runners in the lane, mid-range jumpers and shots from beyond the 3-point line, Smith simply put on a show highlighted by five 3-pointers and 9 of 10 shooting at the free throw line.
“I was just out there playing. I wasn’t thinking about anything,” Smith said. “If they gave me a shot, I shot it.”
The highly anticipated matchup between the Friars and Wolverines exceeded its billing with an instant classic on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in front of a capacity crowd.
“You can’t go out of state and have events like this. First of all, (Simeon coach) Rob Smith is a class guy for doing this,” Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. “Secondly, this game was a test of perseverance for our kids, particularly at the end of the game.
“Mike Smith was terrific today. Just like they say that the only guy to hold Michael Jordan under 20 was (former North Carolina coach) Dean Smith, I’m the same way with Mike Smith. He was absolutely fantastic, they couldn’t stop him.”
Leading 34-29 at halftime, Fenwick extended the lead to 51-42 lead with 2:32 left in the third quarter. Smith scored on a tough leaning layup with his left hand and senior guard Jay Militello added a 3-pointer to cap off the Friars’ 13-4 spurt.
That timely run by the Friars helped negate the offensive work of Simeon’s Zack Norvell, who scored 14 points (including nine in a row) during the third quarter and finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Evan Gilyard contributed 19 points and Josh Thomas finished with 16 points for Simeon (14-3). The Wolverines struggled with free throws, making just 12 of 21 attempts.
Smith nailed a 3-pointer off an assist from Millitello to open the fourth quarter as the Friars built their biggest lead of the game at 57-47. Despite Smith scoring from ostensibly anywhere inside the half-court line, the Wolverines would not go quietly.
Simeon rallied with a 20-9 run to take its first and only lead of the second half, 67-66, on a basket in the lane by Thomas with 12.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing possession, Smith drove down the court and baited Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker with a shot fake into fouling him on a 3-point shot attempt. He proceeded to knock down all three free throws to give Fenwick a 69-67 lead.
Gilyard split a pair of free throws with 6.5 seconds left to make the score 69-68. After Gilyard missed his second attempt which would have tied the game, Fenwick senior forward Mike Ballard grabbed the rebound and passed the ball out to teammate Jamal Nixon who was immediately fouled.
Nixon made two free throws with 1.4 seconds left on the clock to seal the impressive 71-68 win. After the game, The Fenwick students stormed the court to celebrate the victory.
“It was great to get a team like Simeon with such a proud tradition to come out and play us, and on Martin Luther King Day, too,” Nixon said. “We knew it was big game for our fans and it was great to get a win against tough competition.
“Coach (Malnati) had a great game plan for us. We tried to come out and execute it and play together. We knew if we did those things, we had a good chance to win.”
In support of Smith, Keller (12 points) and Nixon (10 points, 7 rebounds) also reached double figures for the Friars. Jay Militello chipped in five points and Ballard finished with four points. Militello also did a nice job defensively at the top of the Friars’ 1-3-1 zone defense and spelling Keller who was in foul trouble during the game.
Although reserves Charlie Boyle and Mike Fiorito made cameos on the court, the Friars essentially knocked off the deep, athletic Wolverines with a six-man rotation of Smith, Nixon, Keller, Ballard, Militello and Quinn Fischer.
And although it was clearly a team win for the Friars, Smith’s performance was the talk of the locker room.
“Mike is amazing and definitely one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” Nixon said. “He does so many things well. He can score, pass, defend and he’s a leader on the court. Not only is he a great guy to play with but he makes everybody better.”
Fenwick (15-2) travels to Aurora Friday to take on Marmion (7 p.m.).
The Friars play Saturday as well, in a highly anticipated 4 p.m. game against Riverside-Brookfield at Glenbard East High School.