The Belleville West Maroons went cold at the wrong time on Thursday at Highland High School.
Salem senior Dearria Watson scored 18 points and the Wildcats’ defense held an athletic Belleville West offense in check for the final two quarters as they went on for a 54-37 win at the Scott Credit Union Highland Girls Basketball Tournament.
Looking to advance to the title game of the annual mid-January tournament for the fourth straight year, West (14-7) took a 31-30 lead with 5:24 left in the third quarter on a conventional 3-point play by Sydney Thurwalker.
That basket would be the last for West until Anjanice Jones scored with 3:24 remaining in the game with Salem (20-3) holding a 42-34 lead and in firm control of the game.
“We take a lot of pride in our defense and we do a good job of moving our feet in the man-to-man defense,’’ Salem coach Janet Holst said. “I thought we made them (West) uncomfortable in their half court offense and we hit enough shots to win the game.”
Kelly Sager added 11 points for Salem, which will play in the title game for the first time when it takes on Central on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The Cougars, ranked first in the Class 2A state poll, defeated Triad in the other semifinal on Wednesday.
West, which was led by senior Erika Harvey’s 10 points, will play Triad at 1 p.m. in the third place game
Following Thurwalker’s basket midway through the third quarter, Sager scored on a 3-point shot and senior Maddi Hood made a short jumper to give Salem a 35-32 lead after three quarters.
But the Maroons scoring drought was only halfway through.
Watson, a 6-1 senior, then scored in the opening 45 seconds of the fourth quarter and when Sager scored on consecutive trips down the floor, the Salem advantage was 42-30 with just over five minutes left in the game.
West would get no closer than seven points the rest of the game.
“I know it was a 17-point loss, but the game was much closer than that. They (Salem) made free throws down the stretch to extend their lead,’’ West coach Seth Garrett said. “Their defense made us set up in our half court offense and forced us into doing some things we don’t do very well.
“We scored 11 points in the second half. You aren’t going to beat many teams doing that.’’
Watson, a three-year starter for Holst’s Wildcats, was unstoppable in the first half, connecting on six-of-seven shots and scoring 12 of her 18 points. The Wildcats led 29-26 at halftime.
“I thought Dearria dominated in the first half,’’ Holst said. “The thing that she does so well is when teams double down on her, she’s smart enough and a good enough passer to set up her teammates. She did that in the second half.’’
In the fifth place semifinals Althoff 48, O’Fallon 43
Junior center Maggie Reimer outdueled O’Fallon standout Celeste Akoro in a battle of elite post players as the surging Crusaders remained red hot with an upset win over the Panthers (11-8).
Reimer scored 20 points to lead Althoff (7-14), which won for the fifth time in its last seven games. Junior Kyleigh Vaught added 10 points — including four straight free throws in the final 10.7 seconds — for Althoff.
Sophomore Jayla Stubblefield led O’Fallon with 13 points.
Highland 61, Hillsboro 53
After a sluggish first half, which ended with a six-point deficit, the host Bulldogs awoke with a strong final two periods as they rallied for a consolation round win. Ranked seventh in the latest Class 3A state poll, Highland (17-4) was led by Madison Wellen with 24 points while Amanda Ponce added 13.
Hillsboro (20-3), ranked second in Class 2A, was led by Maddie Miller with 26 points.