With the exception of head coach Rick Malnati missing Friday’s Chicago Catholic League title game due to appendicitis, everything else went memorably well for the Fenwick High School basketball team.
The Friars defeated St. Joseph 65-58 in overtime at Loyola Academy in Wilmette. The victory earned fill-in head coach Staunton Peck his first varsity win and the Friars their third straight CCL championship and 10th win a row.
Clearly more than a one-man team, Fenwick proved the same along the bench as Peck filled in admirably for his mentor Malnati, one of the premier coaches in the Chicago area.
The Friars visited Malnati before Friday’s game to wish him well and pick up some pregame pointers.
“It was a shock to us when we got the text saying (Malnati) had to go into surgery,” Fenwick freshman guard DJ Steward said. “Once we got to practice, we were able to stay focused on our game plan.”
With the playoffs starting Feb. 27, Fenwick (23-4) is the No. 1 seed in its own sectional and pegged as a top contender to bring home a state championship.
Ironically, St. Joseph was the team who ended the Friars’ bid for a state title last season in a thrilling sectional final. The Friars have won four of five games against the Chargers, however, over the past two seasons.
In their most recent game, St. Joseph junior guard Ahmad Muhammad tied the game at 54-54 on a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime.
The unfazed Friars responded with a decisive 11-2 run in overtime to secure the win. Junior guard AJ Nixon triggered the run with a 3-pointer and Steward made a pair of free throws on the back end of the scoring flurry.
“We stayed focused and limited our turnovers,” Steward said. “We came together as a team and took care of the ball in overtime.”
Earlier in the game with the score tied at 25-25, Fenwick went on a 7-0 run to establish a 32-25 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter. Fenwick senior point guard Jacob Keller produced the highlight of the third quarter when he stole the ball and broke free for an emphatic right-handed dunk.
“We were playing hard,” Jamal Nixon said. “We couldn’t let getting tired get in our way. I knew we had to win that game and I was going to do whatever it took to win it.”
Steward and senior swingman Jamal Nixon scored 19 points apiece. Keller added 14 points before leaving the game with an injury midway through the fourth quarter.
Twin brothers Jalen and Jordan Boyd scored 17 and 15 points, respectively, to lead St. Joseph. The Chargers (15-11) also feature highly touted players Joffari Brown and Marquise Walker. Legendary St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore recently won the 1,000th game of his career in the first round of the CCL playoffs.
Nevertheless, the short-handed Friars found a way to win as they seemingly always do.
“It’s tough to play with a lead when a team is pressing you late in the game, especially when your point guard is hurt,” Peck said. “But our young guys in Steward and (sophomore guard) Damari Nixon did a great job. Our senior leader Jamal Nixon was great too.
“They all did well trying to break pressure while we were missing Keller late in the game. I’m impressed that our guys were able to push through, especially in overtime.”
Fenwick closes out the regular season at home against Lincoln Park on Wednesday, Feb. 22. The Friars will celebrate Senior Night and tip-off is 7 p.m.