There was no shortage of emotion in Edwardsville’s 81-70 victory over the East St. Louis Flyers on Friday in a Southwestern Conference game before a capacity crowd.
The Tigers built a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter before players’ and fans’ tempers overflowed with less than two minutes to play, forcing East St. Louis police to intercede and restore order before the game could be completed.
Edwardsville senior AJ Epenesa and Flyers senior Arthur Carter were in the middle of a late confrontation as they exchanged words that led to a brief scuffle under the Flyers’ basket.
“It was a hard-fought game, and I’m glad we came out on top,” said the 6-foot-6 Epenesa, who scored 20 points. “I felt like I was out there playing football. I was enjoying myself. It was a fun game.”
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Epenesa didn’t play in the first meeting against East St. Louis on Jan. 3 in Edwardsville, which the Tigers won 66-55. He said he wasn’t surprised that the rematch, with first place in the SWC on the line, was so emotionally charged.
“When people are coming off the bench and people on the floor are all trying to surround you, I’m not just going to sit there and let that happen,” Epenesa said. “I was just trying to protect myself, my teammates and try to keep the game going because we’re out here to play basketball. We’re not in a street fight.”
Edwardsville (20-1, 8-1) won its 16th consecutive game. East St. Louis (14-7, 8-2) saw its five-game winning streak end.
Flyers senior Jeremiah Tilmon picked up his third foul with 3:04 to play in the third quarter, and after leaving the game briefly, came back and was whistled for his fourth with 2:17 left in the period. Tilmon was not a factor down the stretch.
Flyers coach Phillip Gilbert expressed disappointment in the officiating.
“I’m never one to criticize officials or do anything like that, but tonight was ridiculous,” Gilbert said. “It was an accumulation of calls. ... Edwardsville is a spirited team; they’re a great team. But at the same time, I feel like my guys step up to the challenge when it’s officiated fairly.”
The Tigers led 45-41 when Tilmon committed his third foul and went to the bench. Then Edwardsville senior Mark Smith had a dunk, and Epenesa scored in the lane to make it 49-41.
Senior Reyondous Estes made two free throws to make it 49-43, and Tilmon re-entered the game. A basket by Estes made it 49-45, but after Tilmon’s fourth foul, the Tigers went on an 10-0 run to extend their lead to 59-45 with 7:38 to play in the game.
East Side was no closer than 11 in the final 7:25.
“They’re a very good team,” Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo said of the Flyers. “It was a good win for us. Defensively, we did a good job most of the game of not giving them easy baskets. That’s probably what we did the best tonight.”
Tilmon, the 6-10 center who has signed with Illinois, was clearly still upset when he came back into the game, and that might have led to his quick fourth foul.
“You can’t expect him to be the physical, dominating force when every call is dictated by what he does,” Gilbert said. “It’s totally ridiculous, in my opinion.
“I had to put him back in the game. He’s the best player, by far, in this league. You want him to go out there and finish the game, but he’s afraid to make a move because he’s afraid of getting a foul. How can you play like that.”
Edwardsville senior Oliver Stephen led all scorers with 21 points and made five of the Tigers’ nine 3-pointers. Smith scored 19 points, and junior Jack Marinko had 10.
Estes led the Flyers with 15 points, while Tilmon had 14. Seniors Kerion Chairs (11), Carter (10) and Travion Vickers (10) also reached double figures.
The Flyers made 10 3-pointers, including three by Chairs.