First-year coach Fernando Stevenson was hired 11 days before his East St. Louis Flyers began their season and summertime rivals Terrence Hargrove and senior Vashon transfer Joe Reece had to learn to be teammates.
But if there are to be any hiccups in the transition, the Flyers haven’t shown them yet.
East Side improved to 3-1 with a 62-52 win over the resilient Belleville East Lancers at the SWC at the E event held Saturday at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
All eight Southwestern Conference teams were scheduled together on a four-game slate at Vadalabene Center. Hargrove said it was a perfect showcase for the Flyers, who believe they can compete for a conference championship despite the many changes to the program.
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“This is a big season for us and we think this winning this game was a statement for the conference,” said the 6-7 junior forward. “A lot of people doubt us so, even though we have a new coach, we have to keep pushing through and focus on building on our game. We’ve got to keep the other stuff out of our heads.”
Hargrove and Reece, who have played against each other in summer AAU leagues, combined for 40 points. Their personal familiarity already has helped them learn to coexist on the basketball court.
Reece, who averaged 11.4 points as a junior at Vashon, scored 13 points with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots against East.
“We’ve never actually played together until this year,” said Hargrove, who added five blocked shots and 14 rebounds to go with his game-high 27 points. “But I’ve known Joe for a long time through the AAU circuit and we have a good relationship. Some more time on the floor together will only help our chemistry.”
Stevenson was thrust in the coach’s job when Stetson Hairston was suspended after a profanity-laced tirade against his players was taped and shared with the school’s administration. Even so, Stevenson says his work as a guidance counselor gives him built-in familiarity with his players and his days playing under former East Side coaches Dennis Brooks and Dwight Howard influenced his handling of the players.
All have helped ease what could have been a forced transition.
“These kids are really resilient kids and I think the transition was smoother for me than other guys because of my familiarity with the kids and the program,” said Stevenson, who also played under Harry Statham at McKendree. “East St. Louis is a coach’s factory. There are a lot of people that you learn from directly and vicariously. They teach you how to be a coach and how to take care of kids.”
Belleville East has had its own transition with first-year coach Jeff Creek and the loss of its three top scorers from last season.
But the Lancers defense kept the Flyers in the game. They built a 16-8 advantage in the first quarter before the Flyers rallied with 12 unanswered points. The score was tied or the lead changed hands eight more times through the second and third quarters.
“They stayed with us and, I think, surprised us a little bit,” Hargrove said of the Lancers. “They played really aggressive defense and tried to get in our heads. We came back to the bench and just said, ‘We need to focus on our game and get a good lead.’”
With a baseline jumper by junior Isaiah May, East drew within four points (54-50) with less than three minutes left in the game.
The Flyers took care of business on the free-throw line, which is where East struggled — the Lancers hit on just eight of 21 foul shots.
“It was worst than 8-for-21 because we missed the front end of three one-and-ones in the second half,” Creek said. “I was extremely happy with the effort. We don’t have a lot of guys with varsity experience and they kept fighting back. We executed exactly what we wanted to do on defense.
“But it’s tough when you’re right there and not making your free throws. It hurt us because it prevented us from gaining any traction when we were trying to make up points.”
Jordan Yates led the Lancers with 16 points. Jaylen Lacey and May scored nine each.
East (3-2) next faces visiting Edwardsville at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. East St. Louis will be at Collinsville on Tuesday.