LA GRANGE – Graham Smith welcomed a physical challenge on Saturday night.
The Lyons senior tight end is spending his offseason away from the gridiron by playing power forward/center for the basketball team.
At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Smith is an imposing presence on the hardwood. He’s big, strong and athletic and plays bigger than his size – if you can imagine that.
Smith’s physicality is rarely matched on the court. He can overpower taller players or utilize his speed to attack the basket.
But Smith met his match on Saturday battling Riverside-Brookfield’s 6-foot-11 Stefan Cicic. The junior center is taller than Smith, and can match his physicality in the post. Cicic, who had 28 points and 24 rebounds in a win over Aurora Christian on Jan. 19, is a budding prospect due to his height, size and soft touch.
Smith, though, wasn’t afraid of testing himself against Cicic.
“It’s always fun and a challenge to go up against someone taller than me,” Smith said. “Usually, I’m the stronger (player) and get fouls called on me. When I’m the smaller guy, I can play looser and not have to worry about someone taking a charge on me or getting so many fouls called on me.”
Smith responded to the challenge, scoring a team-leading 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds in a 61-49 victory over the Bulldogs in LaGrange.
The Lions (19-3) weren’t a one-man show, relying on a team effort to record a comeback win. Jackson Niego played stellar down the stretch, hitting several clutch shots in the halfcourt to end with 12 points and seven rebounds. Senior guard Niklas Polonowski had an end-to-end solid effort with 11 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Senior forward Carter Reid played tough in the paint to tally 10 points and six boards and junior forward Brady Chambers added eight points and five boards.
“It was really fun to be a part of this game,” Smith said. “We eventually found our rhythm. We weren’t shooting well. In the past, we kept on shooting and would dig a hole for ourselves. But tonight, we all came together and everyone was attacking the rim. We got most of our points at the rim. It was a good all-around game.”
Lyons coach Tom Sloan said Smith is a tough-an-nails force in the paint.
“There’s a reason that Division I football teams want Graham to play tight end for them,” Sloan said. “He’s physical and is somebody who doesn’t back away from a scrap.”
The Bulldogs (19-5) had their nine-game winning streak snapped despite scoring the first eight points of the game and leading for the opening 12 minutes. Cicic, in his first season playing for the Bulldogs after transferring from Notre Dame, had a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds. Arius Alijosius, a Winona State recruit, scored 14 points and Will Gonzalez chipped in with 13.
“I thought early on we jumped on them quick and made some shots, but after we went through that sequence we took some quick shots,” Riverside-Brookfield coach Mike Reingruber said. “In the third quarter, they really attacked us inside, maybe some guys guarding some bigger dudes and we not used to guarding bigger dudes. They did a nice job of cleaning up the offensive glass and some stick backs.
Reingruber said the Lions have a nice blend of talented guards and strong interior players.
“They’re big and strong and had a lot of guys that they can throw at Stefan inside,” he said. “I thought he did a nice job when he was able to catch the ball and get open. They did a real good job of making it hard for him to catch it. That’s a benefit of having three or four guys that you can just run in there and have all those fouls to give and that strength and toughness to kind of push him off the block too.”
Smith sealed the win with a powerful dunk with 20 seconds left. The Lions received a solid effort from their bench, including from Caleb Green in the second half. Smith played aggressive near the rim, scoring several baskets by absorbing contact from Cicic for lay-ins. Smith said the entire team tried to focus on stopping Cicic.
“In the whole week of practice, we were talking about making sure I wasn’t fronting him,” Smith said. “We tried to limit his touches because we knew if he gets the ball, there’s a pretty good chance he will score. Once he got a couple of early fouls, it was motivation for everyone, including me, to go at him and be more physical.”
The 6-5, 200-pound Reid scored six of his 10 points in the pivotal third quarter to spark the Lions to seize a 45-41 lead after 24 minutes. Reid said the Lions pulled away behind solid defense and good ball movement on offense.
“Our post game was definitely crucial for the win tonight,” Reid said. “We were able to put together a good week of practice. We practiced pulling Cicic out of the paint, so we could get good looks at the rim. That would’ve been possible without our ball movement from the guards and forwards.”
Sloan said the team benefitted from a week of full practices to prepare for Cicic and the Bulldogs.
“The guys did a nice job of finding an open guy at the rim and finishing off the backboard through contact,” Sloan said.
“We started to work on ways we can take advantage of either mismatches or just plain basketball to get the ball around the basket and Graham, Carter, Connor (Carroll) and Brady and Nik and Matthew (DeSimone) are big, strong and physical kids with some skill who can get the ball within four or five feet, somebody will have an opportunity to score. We spent some time (in practice) looking to score. Graham didn’t have an easy task, but Graham relishes those challenge, as the other guys as Carter and Brady. Those three guys all guarded (Cicic) and did a good job. It was a great team effort.”