Highland used a zone to contain East St. Louis' two-pronged attack of 6-foot-9 senior Joe Reece and 6-7 junior Terrance Hargrove, forcing the other three Flyers on the court to have to step up to beat the Bulldogs.
The first part of the plan worked as Reece and Hargrove only combined for two points in the first half. But the problem was that the East St. Louis guards were up to the task, knocking down eight 3-pointers, to help the Flyers score never trail en route to a 64-54 well-balanced team victory to win the Class 3A Highland Regional championship.
"That was key because we've been talking the last couple of days about the others on this team," said East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers, who was hired halfway through the season and led the Flyers (15-10) to their first regional title since 2013. "Everybody knows about Reece and Hargrove but we have some really good guards in this program, and I just challenged them to show it tonight. And they came out and did it.
"Our guards were able to open it up for (Reece and Hargrove) a little bit in the first half. So in the second half we wanted to really attack the rim and that's what we did. It worked out for us."
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Cornelius Leflore buried two in the first quarter and JaShawn Anderson, Traeveion Jones and Jabril Olivera each hit one to help the Flyers took an 18-11 lead. Jones was just getting warmed up as he pumped in eight points in the second quarter and East St. Louis retained its seven points advantage (30-23) at halftime.
Reece, an Old Dominion recruit, was able to get on track in the second half as he scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, including teaming up with Leflore combined for 12 points to help the Flyers take their biggest lead at 48-33 late in the third quarter.
Hargrove got in the on act in the fourth quarter as h accounted for all seven of hits points,. Hargrove slammed down a two-handed dunk 26 seconds after Reece threw down a one-handed jam to help offset a Highland rally that cut a 10-point fourth quarter deficit down to five. The back-to-back dunks put the game away at 58-48 with 1:35 remaining.
Reece and Anderson shared team-high honors with 15 points apiece and Leflore was right behind with 14 points.
In addition, Hargrove scored all seven of his points in the final stanza and finsihed with 10 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
Highland was paced by 6-4 junior Sam LaPorta with a game-best 18 points. Junior Brady Feldmann also hit double figures with 13 points and 6-8 junior Stephen Torre and 6-3 junior Jake Kruse each had eight points for the Bulldogs.
"We just played as a team today and that was a big team win," said Reece, who also had nine rebounds and seven assists.. "At practice we talked about everybody playing as a team, and if we come together as a whole team, we can be a whole lot more successful than we normally were. So we came out here today and we facilitated the ball and we played together, and good results happened. So I just want to say thanks to the coaches and my teammates, I am happy to be at East Side,it's been a great experience. "
Highland second-year coach Brian Perkes said his team would play the same way against East St. Louis if the Bulldogs had another shot at the Flyers.
"We told our kids going in that if we lose this game, we're going to force the other three players on the floor besides Rece and Hargrove to beat us, and they did.. Hats off to East St. Louis, their other kids stepped up," said Perkes, whose team finished with a 21-9 record. "Reece got loose late when we had to extend the press a little bit and they found him in the middle. But up until then, we kept those guys in check. We had chances up until about a minute and half to go or so. Our kids played hard, we did miss some inside shots. We needed to play a little cleaner game than what we did bu tall in all, we played pretty good."
When Chambers was called about taking over the coaching position at East St. Louis after he had spent 12 years as an assistant at Cahokia, he was told he would need to be a stabilizing force as the Flyers' sixth head coach in the past seven years. Winning the regional title validates his hiring all the more.
"Coming in, these kids didn't know me but they trusted me, and in any program trust is a big part of it," Chambers said. "They trusted me and I trusted them, and they they've done everything that I could possibly ask them to do. I am so proud of them, so happy for them because they are so resilient. They've been through so much but they've never quit. They never put their heads down., they've always battled. Everyday they come into the gym and they try to get better. That's all that I can ask for."
Reece said helping lead East Side to its first regional championship in five years feels amazing. because nobody thought they could do it.
"But we all just stayed in the gym and trusted the process.," he said. "So we all just kept pushing ourselves and we finally got it. here at East Side. And it's not over. We're going to get back in the gym because we got a lot of things we've got to work on and get better for sectionals."
East St. Louis, which has won five in a row and seven of its last eight games, will play sectional host Centralia in the semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"We're getting stronger and more confident and who knows what can happen from here, we just have to give it our best shot," Chambers said.
Although the loss hurts now, Perkes and Highland have a lot to look forward to net year as the Bulldogs will return four of their five starters, who will also be seniors next year.
"I think we will be excited about next year after we get over this loss," Perkes said. "Right now, I feel bad for the seniors, they put four years into this program. We felt we were ready to take that next step tonight in the postseason but it just wasn't meant to be. But it still was a great season. I told the kids that we accomplished a lot. I told the kids that when you lose that last game, it's tough at that moment, but I think they will look back in the next few days and realize that we were pretty darn good and accomplished a lot."
Highland 51, Cahokia 46
Cahokia junior Richard Robinson went to the bench with his fourth foul with 1:06 to play in the third quarter Wednesday.
It was just what the Highland Bulldogs needed.
With the 6-foot-7 Robinson idled, the third-seeded Bulldogs erupted for a 13-0 run that powered them to a 51-46 victory in the semifinals of the IHSA Class 3A Highland Regional.
Torre scored 11 points, while Feldmann added Kruse had 10 points apiece. Feldmann scored eight points in the fourth quarter. Schniers finished with five points.
Highland (21-8), which committed six of its 12 turnovers in the first 6:25 of the third quarter, trailed 34-27 when Robinson scored in the lane with 1:21 left in the period.
LaPorta started the outburst innocently enough, sinking a free throw at the 1:06 mark. Torre followed with a putback of Feldmann's missed 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer to get the Bulldogs within 34-30 heading into the fourth quarter.
Kruse followed with a 3-pointer and LaPorta had a old-fashioned three-point play that put the Bulldogs ahead 36-34 — their first lead since the first quarter and a lead they would never relinquish. Feldmann then scored five straight points on two free throws and a conventional three-point play to make it 41-34 with 5:47 left.
"I thought our pressure defense, our extended 1-2-2 (zone), was pretty good and that enabled us to make a little bit of a run against them," Perkes said. "And we had some kids hit some big shots and we had some kids step up and hit some big free throws. If you're going to advance in postseason, you have got to have that and you've got to be a little lucky, and we got a little lucky.
"These kids find a way," Perkes added. "Our kids don't quit. I'll say that about them. They just battle and battle, and more often than not, we come out on top. It wasn't pretty but we survived and we moved on. Now we get a chance to play for a regional championship and that was one of our goals to start the year."
Highland will face East St. Louis at 7 p.m. Friday for the regional championship. The Bulldogs will be seeking their first regional crown in seven years.
The job of advancing was made easier for the Bulldogs with Robinson not being involved in the action.
"He's one of their two main players," Perkes said. "That would be like taking one of our main players off. It certainly had an impact on the game. When you take one of your better players off the floor for one reason or another, it makes a difference. It tests your depth.
"There was no coincidence about it. (Robinson's absence) came into play."
Robinson led the sixth-seed Comanches (13-14) with 15 points. Junior Elijah Rice and Deavis Johnson had seven points apiece.
Comanches coach Darian Nash lamented the loss of Robinson.
"That hurt us," Nash said. "That was a key. We missed his presence. It's a tough pill to swallow.
"But this will make us better for next season. I told them, 'Next season starts tomorrow. If you don't want to feel this next year, you need to work.' I'm looking forward to next year. We'll be back — a lot stronger, I hope."
But Highland was hampered a bit by foul trouble with Torre not being able to stay on both ends of the floor in the final quarter after picking up his fourth foul. But the Bulldogs were able to overcome it as Feldmann came to life and scored all eight of his 10 points over the final 6:15.
Cahokia led 21-20 at halftime, but went on a 10-2 surge to lead 31-22 with 4:39 left in the third quarter. Perkes called two timeouts in the first 3:06 of the period as the Bulldogs looked for answers.
"We just looked a little jittery," Perkes said. "I don't know if it was so much Cahokia. They hit a couple of buckets, and then they extended the lead a little bit. We got back on our heels. We did have to take some timeouts, but the game was on the line. We had to settle our kids in. They just had to go out there and play."