By the time tipoff rolled around, it’s almost as if the crowd forgot they were there to watch a high school basketball game.
Friday night’s matchup between DePaul and Fenwick was much more than your normal conference game but rather, an event that celebrated the accomplishments of DePaul Prep head coach Tom Kleinschmidt.
Kleinschmidt, who starred for Gordon Tech and later DePaul University in the late 80s and early 90s was celebrated with a pregame video tribute and jersey retirement ceremony before the game, with many members from the 1989-1990 Gordon Tech state runner up team returning to the Northside to join Kleinschmidt on his night.
“This school has meant so much to me, my family and my friends when I was here and it was great to have everyone back in the building, and then you have to go and play Fenwick.”
After the festivities concluded, complete with a banner, jersey, and commemorative street sign, there was almost a sense of surrealism that a basketball game still had to be played.
Propelled by a 23 point fourth quarter, Fenwick would go on to beat DePaul 61-51 to remain undefeated in Chicago Catholic League play, but even the disappointing end didn’t do much to dampen such a special night.
“I thought we really played well, our guards were in control the whole game,” said Fenwick coach Rick Malnati. “They never got sped up, they made good decisions and made the extra pass.”
Klenschmidt added: “They punched us in the face, we punched them back a couple of time and they wore us down and we couldn’t take getting hit anymore. That’s a very good and well coached team.”
Besides Kleinschmidt’s jersey retirement, the story of the night was the matchup between Fenwick sophomore DJ Steward, and DePaul junior Perry Cowan.
The two guards exchanged blow after blow in the first half which saw them lead their respective team in points with 11 each, but a late flurry by Fenwick gave the Friars a 29-25 halftime lead.
After a slow start to the second half, DePaul bounced back with a 7-0 run to put the Rams back on top, but Fenwick managed to limit the damage in the latter stages of the quarter, which included holding Cowan to just two points in the frame.
“We were locked in,” said Manati. “Cowan got some baskets and we knew that was going to happen. We knew he was going to get some but we wanted him to earn them, and he did.”
With the back and forth nature of the first three quarters, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody had the game come down to one final shot. But Steward had other plans.
Fenwick opened up the fourth quarter with a 5-0 run and never looked back. Steward led from both ends of the floor, forcing turnovers which led to plenty of run outs for his 11 fourth quarter points.
“Their 1-3-1 bothered us, it bothered us last year too,” said Kleinschmidt. “Steward takes control on defense and it turns into offense. Usually you can see a guy do that for quarter or two, but it seems he does better as the game goes on.”
Steward would finish with a game high 25 points, only rivalled by Cowan’s 21, but Fenwick’s 23 point fourth quarter outburst gave the Friars a comfortable 10 point margin of victory, their 61 points being the most anybody has scored on DePaul all season long.
On a stage where emotions often get the better of players and coaches alike, the occasion and Kleinschmidt’s far-reaching legacy and contributions to the sport of basketball across Illinois made even the most competitive of coaches go a bit soft.
“We like to win, but it’s unfortunate that it took a little bit of the luster out of the night, I don’t like that,” said Malnati. “I’m not a coaches coach where I hang out with other coaches, but I love what Tommy’s doing. I’d send my son to play for Tommy.”
“It’s mutual respect, though he’s got a lot more equity,” responded Kleinschmidt with a laugh. “But it’s pretty cool for him to say that. Coach Malnati and I go way back, we were pallbearers at Coach Pappas’ funeral and now he’s become a mentor to me. I’m glad he’s a friend and he’s a hell of a coach.”