Dead silence filled the gym at Simeon High School on the afternoon of MLK Day. Not a sound. Nothing. It was an incredibly respectful moment to honor Martin Luther King Jr., following the announcers request for a moment of silence just prior to the start of the Simeon vs. Fenwick basketball game.
Fenwick achieved a piece of history, the first suburban team to play in the storied gym on Vincennes Avenue in the infamous Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Credit Simeon head coach Robert Smith and Fenwick head coach Rick Malnati for putting together this home and home series on MLK Day, beginning last year in Oak Park, where their teams played a great and competitive basketball game in front of a sellout and zealous crowd. It was most certainly one of the most fun high school basketball games I have ever attended.
So my expectations were high when I entered Simeon’s gym yesterday afternoon. My son and I arrived early in order to ensure entrance and were able to watch the JV game, both of us believing Simeon’s JV team could beat most high school varsity teams. They are talented and very good. Fenwick’s JV squad didn’t back down, but lost in a tough battle.
So when the JV squads cleared the floor and the Fenwick varsity dressed in gray warmup suits ran onto the court, the stands were still only about two-thirds full. From the warmups, it didn’t look like the number one rated Wolverines felt they would be challenged by the number 15 Catholic high school from Oak Park. Whereas Fenwick was on the floor to warmup for 30 minutes before the game, working on their outside shots to be as sharp as possible when the game started, Simeon entered the court with less than 15 minutes left in the warmup and spent the first seven minutes doing slam dunks, looking loose and having fun. It was hard to know if this was an intended approach – to stay loose –or if they just were not that worried about their opponent.
When the jumpball went up, the stands were filled and Fenwick did indeed go up on the Wolverines 7-2 and kept building their lead as Simeon couldn’t find the basket and were out-hustled for loose balls. But then the Wolverines really talented shooting guard, Kezo Brown, said that’s enough of this and started hitting a series of beautiful outside shots. You think you’ve seen great two-guards at Simeon starting with Kendrick Nunn, then Zack Norvell and now comes another one in Brown. Talen Horton-Tucker joined that comeback with a hard drive and really amazing basket underneath. So what seemed like a big Fenwick lead one moment turned into a 16-16 tie as the first quarter was winding down. But Simeon was still looking far too loose and relaxed.
Having watched the great teams with Jabari Parker, Steve Taylor, Kendall Pollard, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, I have seen the team battle confidence stretches in the past. Confidence meaning, they know just how good they are and expect to win every game, just by showing up. That leads to letdowns on the court, which has to be a major challenge for Simeon head coach Robert Smith, a master motivator and a coach whose expectations are high for his team. Losing is really not an option. I have watched Smith, who has to be considered one of the best high school coaches in the country, work to inspire his players and step up their games during key moments, ensuring their best efforts and best chance to win. He is not a clipboard coach, drawing up plays. The team's offense and defense is set. For coach Smith, it's about corrections, adjustments and motivation.
Certainly, I wouldn’t compare this year’s team to the Parker teams, but they are very good. Senior point guard Evan Gilyard is even better this year. He is so fast, so quick. Opposing point guards can try to defend him, but Gilyard’s quick stops, starts, fakes and cross-over dribbles, can get him his shot or a drive anytime he wants. To end the first quarter, he made a hard drive to the basket, made the layup and hit his freethrow to put his team up 17-16. Then as the quarter closed out, he faked a drive then pulled up for a long three-pointer from about five feet back at the top of the arc on the right side to deliver nothing but net, 20-16. Impressive! Like last year, Gilyard should most definitely be in consideration for Illinois Mr. Basketball.
As the second quarter started, the Wolverines went on a run with Brown really putting on a show with his outside shooting. And big, strong and powerful Talen Horton-Tucker and Madison Lowery, scored underneath, showing Fenwick their inside power game. Horton-Tucker is an unusual power forward, because he has the skills of a guard. He can drive and make moves under the basket like a guard, while also able to hit his shots from the outside. I give Fenwick’s backcourt, 6-5 Junior power-forward Mike O’Laughlin and senior center Jamal Nixon a lot of credit for not backing down and fighting for every loose ball and missed shot. They won plenty of them and were impressive, Nixon playing with an injured right wrist.
Nixon is a skilled power player as well, able to make moves underneath to score, plus a nice jumpshot from 15-feet out, which he delivered in final minute of the second quarter to close score to 37-36. But Simeon’s Brown answered with another beautiful outside three, only to have Jacob Keller, Fenwick's high scorer on this day, answer with a well-executed pump fake under the basket to score, plus one from the line.
The fans in the stands weren’t cheering wildly like last year, but mostly sitting back and watching two really good, and well-coached, high school basketball teams compete on the hardwood. The second half was determined by talent. It’s as simple as that. Whereas Fenwick played at the top of their intensity and energy, Simeon was loose and laid back, calling on their many skills, when needed, with an explosive drive, or wide open outside shot or quick pass underneath to center Messiah Jones. The junior center is a very talented inside player, who I believe will make the difference for them in the playoffs this year. He has the moves and touch to get to the hoop anytime he wants. He can be a difference-maker in close games when they don’t want to depend on outside shots. He splits time with the powerful Lowery, depending on opponent matchups.
In the fourth quarter, Simeon played smart and hard, building a lead of 10 points, then going to the four-corner offense to kill the clock and open up easy opportunities to the basket. Kejuan Clements, who starts as a sophomore, was playing point to give Gilyard a break. Clements is fast and a very good ballhandler.
The Wolverines won the game 55-50. For Fenwick, not having last year’s star guard Mike Smith and his 38 points, left a gap that couldn’t be filled. Smith is now delighting college basketball fans for Columbia College, but his proud and loyal father Richard was in the gym at Simeon to support the Friars.
A sea of smiling faces left the Simeon gym knowing they had just witnessed another great high school basketball game and one for the Chicago high school basketball history books. The series will move back to Oak Park next year. I highly recommend attending, but arrive early if you want to get a seat.
Filed under: Chicago, Coach Robert Smith, Englewood, IHSA State boys basketball playoffs, Illinois High School Basketball, Jabari Parker, Kendall Pollard, Kendrick Nunn, Mike Smith, MLK Day, Rick Malnati, Simeon Basketball, Simeon High School, Simeon Wolverines, SportsCenter, Uncategorized, Zach Norvell
Tags: Chicago, Coach Robert Smith, Englewood, Evan Gilyard, Fenwick, Fenwick Friars, Jabari Parker, Jaylon Tate, Kendall Pollard, Kendrick Nunn, Kezo Brown, Madison Lowery, Martin Luther King, MLK Day, Rick Malnati, Simeon High School, Simeon Wolverines, Simeon Wolverines basketball, Steve Taylor, Talen Horton-Tucker