It was a memorable return to the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic for the Edwardsville Tigers.
Top-seeded Edwardsville, behind 6-foot-4 senior and Most Valuable Player Mark Smith, took down McCluer North, Lincoln, Springfield Southeast and Althoff to win the title.
It was the Tigers’ first appearance in the 33-year-old tournament since 1995.
Smith scored 35 points in the championship game Friday, an 83-75 decision over defending champion Althoff. It was the Tigers’ second win over the Crusaders this season. They also defeated Althoff 81-78 on Nov. 26 in Highland behind 37 points by Smith.
With Illinois coach John Groce and assistant Jamall Walker in attendance, Smith put on a show. He was 13-for-18 from the field and had eight assists in 32 minutes.
Smith’s highlight-reel play came with 5:17 to play in the game. After a Crusaders turnover, Smith took a pass on the right side, slashed into the lane, elevated over 6-5 Althoff senior Edwyn Brown and finished a one-handed dunk. He was fouled on the play and converted the free throw to put Edwardsville (11-1) ahead 67-52.
“I just saw a wide-open lane,” Smith said. “I didn’t know if (Brown) was going to jump or not. It was cool to dunk on somebody like that, but I’m just glad we won the game.”
I’ve seen him do some crazy stuff in open gym ... That was the most insane thing I’ve probably ever seen in person. He’s an animal.
A.J. Epenesa, commenting on teammate Mark Smith’s dunk against Althoff
Althoff (8-3) rallied within 79-75 in the final minute, but Smith’s layup clinched the outcome.
“The last time we played them, the same thing happened,” Smith said of the Crusaders’ late charge. “We were up, but we just kept our cool and kept playing. We made plays when they tried to pressure us. We kept going with what we practice every day.”
Althoff coach Greg Leib said trying to come back against Edwardsville isn’t a prosperous occupation.
“Usually, Renner Funeral Home comes out and sponsors that thing whenever Edwardsville gets up by double digits,” Leib said. “They’re just so good. They outplayed us in a lot of capacities. We played hard and had our chances. We’ve got some areas to get better at.”
Junior Jack Marinko and senior AJ Epenesa provided support for Smith. Marinko was 6-for-6 on 3-pointers and had a career-high 21 points. Epenesa had 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, becoming the 21st Edwardsville player to reach 1,000 points in his career. Smith became the 20th player in that club Thursday.
Senior Oliver Stephen, who made 19 3-pointers to tie two others for the tournament record, has 908 points and will likely reach the 1,000-point mark in January.
Epenesa, no stranger to dunks, said Smith’s was the best he’s witnessed.
“I’ve seen him do some crazy stuff in open gym,” Epenesa said. “It doesn’t surprise me, but that was awesome. That was the most insane thing I’ve probably ever seen in person. He’s an animal. He’s getting after it.”
Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo sat in a chair as his players received postgame accolades, which included Smith, Epenesa and Stephen being named to the all-tournament team.
I’m just fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity. I’m excited (Groce) came and watched. It was exciting. I’m just taking it in.
Mark Smith, on the presence of Univeristy of Illinois basketball coach John Groce
“Althoff is really good,” Waldo said. “They’re well-coached. They’ve got a lot of athletes, and they’re hard to guard. They played a great game. They had a lot of guys make shots. It was a very hard game to win. My guys did a lot of things well.”
Waldo was glad to be back in the tournament. Since Edwardsville last played in the Collinsville Tournament, the Tigers had competed in Charleston, Carbondale and Bloomington.
“We’ve had a lot of good memories over the years in Collinsville – some of them good, some of them hard,” Waldo said. “I like this gym, and I like the tradition here. It was good to play here. We just have to keep trying to get better right now.
“I’m happy for our guys because they worked hard to win, and they’ll be happy for a while, too. But they understand how hard it is, and they understand we’ve got to keep working to get better. It will be fun tonight, but then it will be time to move on pretty quick.”
The Tigers survived another huge game from Crusaders senior Jordan Goodwin.
Goodwin had 33 points, 15 rebounds, five steals and four assists. He finished with a tournament-record 128 points, exceeding the former mark of 118 points set by East St. Louis Lincoln’s Cuonzo Martin in 1988 and Walton (Ga.) High’s Ryan Harrow in 2008.
“It means a lot to play in this tournament four years,” said Goodwin, the Saint Louis University recruit. “Even though we came up short, it was good to be a part of this holiday classic. It would have been better with a ‘W.’ But congrats to Edwardsville. Their coach did a good job of switching up the defense. They had our offense guessing a lot.
“They play good team basketball (at Edwardsville). I feel like we played a little selfish on offense and we didn’t guard too well.”
Edwardsville will play its next two games – Tuesday against East St. Louis and Friday against O’Fallon – without the 6-6 Epenesa, an Iowa football recruit who will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl at noon Saturday in San Antonio.
Usually, Renner Funeral Home comes out and sponsors that thing whenever Edwardsville gets up by double digits. They’re just so good.
Greg Leib, Althoff head basketball coach
Epenesa will return for the Tigers’ game Jan. 13 at Alton.
“We’re going to miss him, but it’s going to be good,” Smith said. “Maybe down the stretch later, AJ gets in foul trouble, and we already know we can play. It will be a good test for us.”
Smith visited with Groce for several minutes after the game. Illinois’ interest in Smith is real, and Smith would relish an opportunity with the Illini.
“I hope it works out like that,” Smith said. “I’m just fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity. I’m excited (Groce) came and watched. It was exciting. I’m just taking it in.”
Groce seemed to enjoy Marinko’s sizzling shooting as much as anything.
“It’s a great feeling,” Marinko said. “It was a great game for me and for the team. I was getting open a lot. I had my feet set, and I was ready to shoot.
“To get the win is really great. It’s a big milestone to come out and win the Collinsville Tournament, and now we can just go on from here.”