Having to play briefly without star senior guard Keenan Minor may have been highly beneficial for the Cahokia Comanches.
The Comanches improved to 20-2 by delivering five straight wins last week to take home the championship at the Jerseyville Mid-Winter Classic.
Minor, a potential Division I recruit, sat out the first two games with a knee injury before returning to play in the final three wins.
"I think it was a blessing that Keenan was hurt in a way," Cahokia coach Darian Nash said. "Other guys knew they had to step up, so they did and we came out victorious. Now we're playing pretty good defense and that's the key.
"We had to beat our heads on the wall every day at practice. We really stressed defense and it's finally sinking in."
Cahokia's 6-6 junior Darius Austin, already receiving plenty of major Division I recruiting interest, was named the tourney's Most Valuable Player.
Austin (12.3 points per game) had 20 points against Pittsfield, 15 against Jerseyville, 14 against Marquette and Collinsville and 12 against Alton.
"If Darius decides to take over a game, he can do it," Nash said. "He's really starting to play the whole 32 minutes, not just laying back. He's being aggressive and he's hard to stop when he's on the attack."
Vincent Jackson, a 6-5 senior, has been one of the Comanches best players and is averaging 13.2 points.
Derenzo Jennings, Carleton Rivers, Gary Hickman and Phillip Scott continue to provide production as well for the Comanches.
Nash doesn't believe Minor's injury is serious.
"We just wanted to rest it and we'll continue to rest it and hopefully he can make it through," Nash said. "There's no structural damage, so I think he just needed rest."
This is a big weekend for the Comanches, who follow a Friday night South Seven Conference home game against Carbondale with a showdown against Class 4A powerhouse Edwardsville.
Edwardsville and Cahokia meet in the 8 p.m. finale Saturday at the Pinckneyville Panthers Showcase.
"We played them three years ago and we beat them on a buzzer-beater at Cahokia," said Nash, who is excited about the matchup. I look forward to seeing them. (Edwardsville senior standout) Tre' Harris is my cousin."
Edwardsville, coming off a second straight championship at the Salem Invitational, is 17-1 with the lone loss coming to SWC rival Belleville East. Cahokia suffered its only losses on back-to-back nights in mid-December against Mount Vernon and Evansville (Ind.) Bosse.
The Tigers are first in the News-Democrat Large-School rankings, but can't get caught looking ahead to Cahokia with a Friday night conference showdown at No. 2 Belleville East.
Harris, who earned first-team all-tournament honors at Salem, is tied for the Tigers' scoring lead at 18.6 points per game with Western Illinois recruit Garret Covington. Covington has 51 3-pointers and Harris has 38.
Edwardsville girls rolling along
Now 21-0, ranked 23rd in the USA Today's Super 25 national girls basketball poll and second in the Illinois Class 4A state poll, the Edwardsville Tigers are destroying nearly everything in their path.
They did have two rare close games last week, defeating St. Louis power St. Joseph's Academy 61-52 on Tuesday and then knocking off defending Missouri state champion Columbia Rock Bridge 51-37 on Friday.
Edwardsville swept three games to win the Rock Bridge Tournament led by tourney Most Valuable Player Kortney Dunbar, posting lopsided wins over Jefferson City and Jackson along with the victory over Rock Bridge.
Carlyle ends long drought at Benton
Carlyle went 5-0 last week to win the Benton Invitational Tournament, capturing its first tourney championship there since 1998.
The Indians' championship ended Pinckneyville's run of eight straight titles at Benton and the Panthers also saw their 41-game tournament win streak snapped last week.
The return of junior standout Matt Hilmes from a fractured hand aided the effort, but Carlyle coach Andy Palmer felt the entire team picked up its game.
"Obviously getting Matt back really helped, it gave us a little bit more balance offensively," said Palmer, whose 15-6 squad has won its last nine games. "Without him we tended to be very perimeter-oriented and one-dimensional that way. Without him, they could stay tied to our shooters and not worry about having to double down inside in the post. Now they have to make that choice, so it's a big advantage for us offensively."
After beating Benton 62-41 in its first game Saturday, Carlyle needed a win over Sesser-Valier to secure the championship. It wasn't easy as a put-back bucket by Hilmes and two late free throws by Cody Huels helped the Indians hold on for a 56-52 victory.
Hilmes exploded for 29 points and hit 13-of-17 shots in the title game while John Becker added 10 points for the Indians.
Hilmes, Huels and Becker each made the all-tournament team. Hilmes missed 13 games before returning for the Benton tourney opener on Monday.
"Fortunately for us he was able to run and keep in shape," Palmer said. "He came in and really didn't miss a beat."
Carlyle did lose senior guard Tyson Boehne to an ankle injury near the end of the third quarter against Benton on Saturday, causing him to miss the final game.
Palmer said the injury isn't believed to be serious.
Starting the tournament with victories over Okawville and Pinckneyville helped send the Indians on their way.
Palmer was asked where he thinks his team fits in the metro-east Class 1A-2A hierarchy.
"We feel like we're one of the top teams in the area," he said. "But if you looked at us during the Mater Dei Tournament week, we don't look like we'd belong in the top 10."