The City Game focuses coverage on the game of basketball at the amateur levels in and around the city of Chicago
By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
Upon first glance at the schedule for the 2018 Chicago Elite Classic, one might’ve asked whether the “elite” adjective was fitting for the city.
Sure, state powerhouses Whitney Young and Simeon were hosting, and there were a slew of other solid local teams playing, but the most well-known names coming those coming in from across the country: Montverde Academy from Florida; California’s Mater Dei; even the birthplace of the King — Akron, Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary.
You might not blame a casual observer for wondering if the Chicago-area schools could compete with such prep basketball factories.
But by the tournament’s conclusion, it was clear Chicago’s elite had come to put the rest of the country on notice. While not every local squad defeated their visiting opponent, the city’s best players took center stage and built up the 7th CEC as another successful showcase for one of high school basketball’s hotbeds.
Fenwick vs. OPRF, Friday Night
The final minutes of Friday’s game against Oak Park-River Forest had been a struggle for Bryce Hopkins and Fenwick. The Friars had lost the lead to the rival Huskies, and key players Solomon Oraegbu (leg cramps) and Lucas Kolovitz (fouled out) were out of action.
But Hopkins, a 6-5 sophomore who played 33 of 36 minutes, was determined to not let the result stand.
“We had to have that chip on our shoulder, we had to keep on fighting,” he said.
The Friars led by five points with two minutes left, but OPRF cut the lead to one. After Hopkins went coast-to-coast for a one-handed slam and three-point play, the Huskies tied the game at 62 to force overtime.
In OT, with Oraegbu and Kolovitz on the bench, the Friars couldn’t find a rhythm and turned the ball over on their first two possessions. However, a Hopkins steal and layup cut Oak Park’s lead to 65-64. After losing the ball out of bounds, the Friars forced a 10-second violation with 17 seconds left.
On the final play, Hopkins traversed the baseline multiple times before he finally got the ball under the basket fought his way past two OPRF defenders to lay the ball in just before time expired.
Oraegbu, who had been disconsolate next to the Fenwick bench after leaving the game, pumped his fist, while his teammates rushed their star teammate. Fenwick fans, clad in varying shades of Christmas red and green nearly rushed the court before security herded them back into the bleachers.
It was a perfect ending to the first day of the tournament, especially for Hopkins and the Friars, who found redemption in the victory.
“Last year, we lost to them [OPRF]. The previous six years, we had beaten them,” said Hopkins. “We had to keep on thinking about how we lost to them last year and keep fighting.”
First-year head coach Staunton Peck agreed that this game had additional magnitude.
“Every year, this is a big game,” he said. “We look forward to it, the whole town looks forward to it. We’re circling this date on the calendar every year.”
“We lost seven guys from last year’s team,” he added. “This is pretty much a brand new team. We came ready to play.”
Uplift vs. Evanston, Saturday Afternoon
Markese Jacobs’ ticket to the next level is already punched. The 5-11 senior has committed to DePaul, and Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao was at Wintrust Arena to watch his incoming star lead Uplift against Evanston Township.
“The Show,” as Jacobs is known in Chicago, got his first taste of what college ball will be like, and he cheerfully acknowledged the difficulties that lie ahead.
“It was tiring,” he said. “I was busting my behind from start to finish, and now I finally see it’s going to take a lot to keep running up and down the court.”
Uplift’s star guard tallied 33 points, but the Wildkits’ team effort gave them an 80-64 win, a needed victory after a loss to Glenbrook South Thursday.
After the game, Evanston coach Mike Ellis underscored his entire team’s abilities to play all facets of the game.
“One of our strengths is our versatility. If teams want to press us, we can handle the matchup in the press,” he said. “We can handle the matchup in zone. If you look at our guys and our skill sets, they’re very broad.
“On the scouting report for any one of these guys, it’s not just a shooter. It’s not just a driver or creator. They can do all that.”
Lance Jones, who took on the challenge of defending Jacobs, kept a simple approach.
“My motivation was to play smart and don’t reach too much,” he said.
For his part, Jacobs admitted to some pressure in playing a team the quality of the Wildkits, but he understands his role this season as the Titans’ leader.
“For someone to build confidence, you have to keep giving them shots, keep giving them chances,” he said. “My mindset is to come with it every game, try to my teammates on the same page as me, and we’ll find out the results.
While Coach Ellis was happy with his team’s win, he was effusive in his praise for Jacobs and acknowledged his promising future with the Blue Demons.
“You’re not gonna stop Markese,” he said. “Markese is a legitimate scorer from anywhere on the floor as soon as he crosses halfcourt. He can finish at the basket with explosiveness as well. He’s going to be a great addition to the DePaul family.”
Whitney Young vs. Mater Dei, Saturday Evening
Originally, Whitney Young was scheduled as the Saturday headliner against Mater Dei, but a timeslot change pushed the Dolphins-Monarchs matchup to 7:30 pm, with Simeon versus St. Vincent-St. Mary moving to 9 pm.
While the Wolverines gave a quality effort against St. Vincent-St. Mary – ultimately coming up a bit short – the Dolphins and Mater Dei engaged in an excellent back-and-forth battle, with Whitney Young winning 67-61.
New Dolphins transfer DJ Steward exploded for four three-pointers in the first quarter (including one as the period expired), and finished with 25 points and eight rebounds. Myles Baker and Tyler Beard played big roles, especially in harassing Mater Dei point guard Devin Askew, who finished with four points on 1-7 shooting.
Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter was pleased with his team’s defensive execution over the course of the game, especially in taking advantage of the college court.
“The pace of the game – the continuation of the pace of the game – had an effect on them,” he said. “We switched a lot of ball screens and forced them to take some disrupted shots.”
Beard credited his coaches for telling him to “pick it up in the second half” defensively, and to find other ways to affect the game.
Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight acknowledged Young’s quality and how this defeat can help his team going forward.
“It’s only going to help us as the season goes on, that’s the way I look at it. You can’t play cupcakes,” he said. “You gotta play people that will make you better.”
Steward’s transfer makes Whitney Young a favorite to win the state championship next March, but Coach Slaughter knows both Beard and Baker are capable of carrying the team on any night during the season.
“We had an outstanding group of guys when DJ got here. It’s kind of like winning the lottery and then getting a promotion on your job,” he said. “That [the win] was a snapshot of what these three guys are going to ultimately be during the course of the year.”
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR