COLLINSVILLE — East St. Louis senior Travon McCray has been spending extra time in the gym to work on his shot.
McCray's diligence paid off in the wink of an eye Saturday when he popped a 15-footer at the buzzer to give the Flyers a 41-40 victory over top-seeded Belleville East in the semifinals of the Collinsville-Schnucks Holiday Classic.
The Flyers' win avenged a 67-66 loss to the Lancers in a Southwestern Conference game on Dec. 7 in Belleville and advanced them into the championship game at 8 p.m. against Quincy. The teams have never met in the title game.
"My teammate (senior Joseph Cook) gave me a pick ... and I just got the shot," said McCray, who finished 1-for-6 from the field. "I had confidence in my shot. It felt like a championship game."
Senior Johnny McCray, Travon's cousin, had 14 points and eight rebounds for East Side. Senior Deshawn Munson had 10 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and three steals.
East senior Malcolm Hill led all scorers with 20 points on 8-for-21 shooting and also had seven blocked shots. Senior Khalil Smith-Traylor had 10 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and five steals.
East St. Louis (7-6) trailed 40-39 when Hill hit a 3-pointer from the left corner with 23 seconds left. The Flyers called a timeout with 15 seconds left, then looked for a final shot.
Munson dribbled into traffic in the lane and lost control of the ball, which was tipped out of bounds near the Flyers' bench with 1.7 seconds left. Munson then inbounded the ball to Travon McCray, who nailed the shot from the right side of the free-throw line.
The Flyers swarmed McCray under the basket as a a large contingent of East St. Louis fans celebrated in the stands. A near-capacity crowd of about 3,000 watched the game.
"We made a good stand for 12 seconds," said East coach Abel Schrader, whose team fell to 11-1. "We lost our head. They throw the ball inbounds, the guy makes a dribble and makes a shot, and we don't guard him. It happens. It's unfortunate."
The Lancers, who were seeking their second title in three years, will play Collinsville in the third-place game at 6:30 p.m.
The Flyers relished in the narrow victory. Of East St. Louis' six losses, five have come by three or fewer points.
"With one second left, we get a kid the ball and see if he can get a shot off," Flyers coach Tony Young said. "I'm proud of Tra. Bottom line. Tray had the confidence to step in and hit that shot. With that kind of confidence, you can't do anything but applaud the kid."
Young said he had nothing to do with the final play.
"I'm going to be honest with you: That was all Travon McCray," he said. "He ran over and said, 'Coach, give me the ball.' He ran to a corner and I said, 'Get a catch.' He had to catch it and do what he did. It was him. I don't want the credit; I want it to go to him."
Schrader was proud of the Lancers for rallying from a daunting 17-4 deficit at the end of one quarter, but was disappointed with their execution on offense. East shot just 28 percent (25-for-54).
"It comes down to a lot more than that last shot," Schrader said. "We made a ton of mistakes. We didn't handle their 1-3-1 very well at all. ... We've got to get better at attacking situations, and that boils down to me trying to make them better against a zone and a 1-3-1. We're disappointed."
Junior point guard Darreon Reddick, who has been a steady scorer for the Lancers, endured a difficult game and he was 0-for-6 from the field and scored just two points. Junior Cameron Hunter, another consistent performer for East, was limited to six points.
East St. Louis shot 35 percent (18-for-52) and overcame 14 turnovers that enabled East to stay in contention despite its shooting woes.
"We're not perfect," Young said. "We're not where we need to be, by any means. But I'm proud of my kids, man. They had a will that we haven't had in other games that were that close."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.