Malachi Smith cracked the Belleville East varsity roster as a sophomore and returned the following year to average 12 points per game.
He was back in the East gym Friday, this time wearing the colors of the cross-town West Maroons. It wasn’t a warm welcome home he got from the Lancers student section either — it chanted “traitor, traitor” whenever Smith had the ball and hissed like a den of snakes every time he toed the free-throw line.
The 6-foot-3, 193-pound senior guard answered them back with a game-high 21 points in a lopsided 64-37 city-rivalry win for the Maroons.
The chanting didn’t relent until Smith was pulled at the start of the fourth quarter, once the game’s outcome was academic. One East student displayed a large picture of a rainbow-frosted cupcake, decorated in Smith’s No. 11.
Smith didn’t flinch.
“I’ve been hearing about it all week, but it’s just getting me ready for college,” he said. “I just trying to play my game and not trying to do anything I don’t usually do. Play hard and play smart.”
Smith landed a pair of 3-pointers — including a 22-footer at the start of the second quarter that put West ahead by 10 — and didn’t miss any of his seven free throws.
West coach Joe Muniz knew it would be a rude reception for Smith, but he didn’t doubt the cool senior would reveal anything but composure.
“I think he handled himself really well and showed some toughness out there,” Muniz said. “He came in and hit some shots early, and I was happy for him.”
The East bench was less focused on Smith than it was on West junior EJ Liddell and his 24 point-per-game average. Liddell opened the scoring with an impressive one-handed dunk, an act he repeated early in the second quarter.
The Lancers’ double-team otherwise held Liddell to six points, breaking a 26-game streak in which the four-star prospect had reached double figures.
“We were trying to get him the ball,” Smith said, “but he was getting double-teamed and triple-teamed a lot.”
Still, the disruption the 6-7 forward caused on the defensive end of the floor changed the game.
Liddell blocked 12 shots, eight in the first half alone, to helped fire a Maroons offense Muniz says has been out of sync since the Washington Tournament of Champions over Thanksgiving weekend.
“EJ is a good shot-blocker, and I don’t mean he’s just a good jumper,” said East coach Jeff Creek. “When he blocks shots, they stay in bounds, which leads to runouts on the other end. That just got them going, and when they got going, we hit a lull on offense, and it was pretty much game over.”
East tried to keep its offense in the half-court, passing around the perimeter for an open shot, rather than challenge Liddell in the paint.
Turnovers opened the floodgates for a 20-0 Belleville West run that started with Lawrence Brazil’s breakaway layup with 3:18 left in the first half and ended with his 10-foot jumper off the baseline late in the third quarter.
“Our offense has been out of sync since we came back into the area because we’re facing good coaches and good teams that play a control-style game,” Muniz said. “But when we’re rebounding the ball and we’re getting turnovers, we’re able to score on the other end, and that was the key to the game.”
Three-pointers by Brazil and Smith put the Maroons up by 30, 48-18, with little more than a minute left in the third quarter.
Brazil was the only other West player in double figures with 11. Isaiah Mays led East with eight points.
The Maroons improved to 6-1 on the season, their only loss coming against Sam Houston Math and Science in the Washington tournament. They’ll take a 3-0 Southwestern Conference record into a key home matchup with East St. Louis on Friday.
East (3-4, 0-3 SWC) travels to Columbia for a nonconference game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.