Belleville East senior Javon Pickett could only hope he had doused an Alton Redbird rally when, with 19 seconds left in the game, he got a mid-court steal and scored a game-tying layup.
But Alton’s Kevin Caldwell still had the hot hand. His 3-pointer in response sealed a 66-63 Southwestern Conference victory for the Redbirds in East’s gym Tuesday.
The Lancers had led the game by 18 points in the third quarter, but an Alton timeout triggered the Redbirds’ furious 38-17 run at the finish.
“I work on that shot all the time and just wanted to make a play for my team,” said Caldwell, who finished with a team-high 24 points. “They wanted me to go to the hole, but I like the dagger-3 at the end.”
For the Lancers (5-3), the loss wasted the home-court advantage in a hotly-contested conference and Pickett’s 30-point performance.
“We guarded them exactly how we wanted to to the first half,” Schrader said. “But in the second half we stopped guarding them. Things started going bad for us, and not only were we playing against Alton, we were playing against each other.”
The Lancers next face Decatur-Eisenhower at the Collinsville Holiday Tournament on Dec. 28. Alton (5-2) faces Addison Trail at the Centralia Tournament.
East shot 16-of-28 in the first half, including four field goals from 3-point range. Senior Rico Sylvester scored six points in a 8-2 rally to start the second half and put the Lancers on top 46-28.
But Alton shut down Pickett in the third quarter, holding the University of Illinois recruit without a second-half basket until midway through the fourth quarter. In the meantime, Alton rallied 23-6 to take its first lead of the game.
Caldwell had 12 points during that run and contributed on the defensive end.
“That big shot, obviously, was great, but he did a lot of other things for us tonight,” said Alton coach Eric Smith. “He got some big rebounds, he guarded really, really well and he handled the ball.
“We’ve had more turnovers than we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’ve been stressing to the kids that we needed to do a better job, especially with their three really good guards.”
Alton built a 63-58 lead, when Pickett drained his fourth 3-pointer of the night and tied the game with his steal and layup at the 19-second mark.
Caldwell didn’t hesitate on the game-winner, pulling up two steps ahead of the top of the key to score the winner.
Alton shot 16-of-26 in the second half after shooting 43 percent in the first half.
“That last minute there was the hardest we played for a quarter to get back in the game,” said Schrader. “It was great Javon scored his points, it’s good. But we stopped playing defense, and we stopped defensive rebounding.
“It is what it is. It wasn’t the offense tonight; it was the defensive end.”
In addition to Caldwell’s 24 points, the Redbirds got 22 points from Darrell Smith and 10 from Dereaun Clay.
Pickett led East with 30, while junior Jordan Yates added 12 and Sylvester scored nine.