The top five teams in the Southwestern Conference are separated by only two wins, more proof of the parity that exists in the ultra-competitive basketball league this season.
Edwardsville (21-2) and Alton (20-3) are both 8-2 in league play. Edwardsville's only two losses are to league rivals Alton (59-56) and East St. Louis (63-47), while two of Alton's three defeats came within the SWC.
Alton's league losses are to East St. Louis (53-52) and Belleville East (59-58), but the Redbirds only beat Collinsville (11-13, 3-7) 57-56 on Friday.
O'Fallon (14-9) has also pushed itself into the race by winning seven of its 10 league games, followed closely by Belleville East (15-7, 6-4) and East St. Louis (14-7, 6-4).
"You're almost not surprised by anything," O'Fallon coach Rick Gibson said. "Last week we go on the road and beat Belleville East and people wouldn't have been surprised either way, then Alton beats Collinsville by one.
"It's as tight as I've seen it in a long time and it's fun. You know there's going to be a lot of good games every single week. Its a shame we've all got to beat up on each other in the regionals."
End of the game execution, or lack thereof, has decided a lot of SWC games.
"Some teams are doing a little bit better the last couple minutes of the games and that's what most of these games are coming down to," Gibson said. "I don't think talent-wise it's maybe as strong as it was last year, it was a little more top-heavy last year. You don't have those one or two dominant teams."
O'Fallon has flown under the radar a bit, but also has won five of its last six games including victories over Belleville East and East St. Louis. Gibson feels the Panthers may be benefiting from a grueling non-conference schedule.
"We're playing a lot better," he said. "We could have scheduled easier and probably had four or five more wins right now, but we lost some early games to that tough schedule. It's paying off right now."
While 6-foot-6 junior Donovan Franklin (20.3 points per game), Darien McClain (11.2 ppg) and Chance Armstrong (8.9 ppg) do a lot for the Panthers, Gibson said 6-3 senior Isaiah Armstrong is another big contributor despite averaging only 5.5 points.
"He's not the leading scorer," Gibson said, "but he's leading our team in rebounds (7.8 per game) and blocks (31) and he's guarding other to the team's big man, whoever it is.
"He's doing a great job for us with a lot of things that don't necessarily show up in the box score. Darian and Donovan deserve (attention), but he's kind of the glue that's doing all the other little things that are contributing to wins for us."
National anthem rescue
With a packed house at Althoff on Friday for a South Seven Conference showdown with Cahokia, emotions were running high even before the opening tip.
And when a female high school student stumbled with the words during the national anthem, the crowd quickly came to her rescue. Without missing a beat, hundreds of fans on both sides of the gym began singing the rest of the national anthem loudly until its finish, then gave the student a roaring ovation.
The Althoff student section began chants of "USA, USA."
"When the anthem went awry a little bit and everybody in the entire gym stepped up and helped finish if off, that was awesome," Althoff coach Greg Leib said. "I had never experienced anything like that. I wish somebody had filmed it ... then the kids were chanting 'USA' at the end, so you'd have thought we were in Sochi."
Leib said the entire sequence stuck with him throughout the weekend, as much or more significant as the two games his team played.
"I look back at what's important about what we do and that's a big special piece of it right there, being able to experience something like that," he said. "I was really proud of the Althoff community and the Cahokia fans as well. No one was laughing, everybody just stepped right in and started singing.
"It's the best national anthem I've heard this year"
Carlyle star climbing the ladder
Carlyle High senior standout Matt Hilmes is headed to Quincy University to play baseball, but also is leaving quite a basketball legacy behind for the Indians.
Hilmes entered Monday's game against Central with 1,428 career points, leaving him third in school history behind former University of Illinois standout Tom Michael (1,802 points) and Phil Kunz (1,616 points), who played for Illinois and Iowa State.
Even more impressive is Hilmes missed 13 games last season because of an injury. Still an inside force, the 6-3 Hilmes has added a better perimeter game to his bruising inside play this season.
"I think he's shooting it a little better from the outside and has knocked down some big threes for us," Carlyle coach Andy Palmer said. "He's also just physically stronger and has been able to score with some contact, too."