By Max Baker
CHICAGO — In the winding seconds of the Chicago Elite Classic’s final game on Saturday night, Kenwood coach Mike Irvin was the loudest person in the gym.
“Easy. Easy," Irvin yelled. "There’s a new sheriff in town, there’s a new sheriff in town."
The emotion captured not only the intensity, but the significance of Kenwood’s 72-66 win over Joliet West, a game that featured a point guard battle between two of the top players in Illinois.
“They need to understand that I’m a genius at this,” said Irvin, whose team improved to 4-0. “I’ve been putting teams together all my life. They thought because [Nick Irvin] left, another Irvin wasn’t going to come in and get it done. … We can compete with anyone and we are ready to win the city and state championship.”
The most anticipated matchup of the tournament featured two seniors: Kansas State commit Dai Dai Ames of Kenwood vs. Michigan State commit Jeremy Fears of Joliet West. Both players rank as top 100 prospects nationally, but this was the first matchup since Fears returned to Joliet West (5-2).
Fears played at Joliet West as a freshman before transferring to La Lumiere Academy in Indiana. This fall, he came back to play for the Tigers to team up with his brother, Jeremiah, for Jeremy’s final season.
Both players battled foul trouble and Fears finished with 16 points while Ames tallied 12. But Ames got the victory.
“There’s no question that the best player in the state is right here to my right and that’s Dai Dai Ames,” Irvin said. “He’s been here. They got to respect him. They don’t want to respect him. He’s Player of the Year, Mr. Basketball, this is his state. We don’t let nobody come from out of town, come from these prep schools and then now, all of a sudden, they are at the top and they are better than everybody.”
“I’ve been putting up 30, 40 points all my life,” Ames said. “(My goal) today was to win a basketball game and that’s what I did.”
In the first half, it appeared that Joliet West might run away with the game. The Tigers led by 10 at the break and the Broncos’ defense had little answers. Jeremiah Fears shined for Joliet West with 17 points, while junior Justus McNair added 15 points and Matthew Moore had 13.
“They were in (the locker room) celebrating, they were happy,” Irvin said. “I said, ‘Look fellas, we're gonna back up at half court and make them run some plays because guess what, we're going 6-11, 6-9, 6-6. Let them come to us.’ And we did that. And then we got out and ran our stuff. In the first half, we didn’t really run our offense. In the second half, we did.”
Both Ames and Fears were on the bench for a chunk of the third quarter due to foul trouble. The two each received a technical in the first half after exchanging words with each other. Joliet West’s offense had no answers without their star point guard on the floor and Kenwood’s role players stepped up.
A 14-0 run by Kenwood catapulted the Broncos out in front in the third quarter and they didn’t look back. Kenwood junior Calvin Robins finished with 21 points and Tyler Smith was key offensively in that run.
“Down the stretch, we just spread them out and ran what we wanted to run,” Irvin said. “We dictated the second half. We did what we wanted to do. We didn't let them speed us up. We didn’t let them stop us from anything we wanted to run.”
Kenwood now has two statement wins on the season, including an opening night two-point victory over Whitney Young. Following the game, Irvin expressed his displeasure with the way his team is viewed compared to others.
“I thought that it was disrespectful that we started out the season ranked three in the Chicago Sun Times and then all of a sudden we knocked off one of the powerhouses that has been for a long time, Whitney Young, and then we came back to the table and we still ranked number three. We just felt some disrespect. … Give us our respect, that’s all we ask for. … We can compete with anybody in this state on any day. We ready to win the city and state championship.”