First-year East St. Louis coach Fernando Stevenson knew all about the talent of Belleville West junior EJ Liddell.
But Stevenson witnessed it up close and personal Friday as the 6-foot-7 Liddell scored a game-high 30 points and blocked eight shots to lead the Maroons past the Flyers 80-64 in a Southwestern Conference showdown before a capacity crowd of about 2,700.
“EJ Liddell is what we thought he was. He’s a star,” Stevenson said. “They have a great system, too. They never got rattled. Despite us making our runs, they stayed poised. When they turned it over, they made up for it on defense. It was a total team effort.
“Coach (Joe) Muniz has earned the right to coach a team like that. He’s always had scrappy teams. This is a special group. He has a chance to do something really special. He’s earned the right to have that team.”
West, ranked fourth in the Class 4A poll in Illinois, improved to 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the SWC. East Side, ranked fourth in the Class 3A state poll, fell to 4-3 and 2-2.
Senior Malachi Smith scored 22 points for the Maroons and junior Keith Randolph added 17. The Flyers were led by junior Terrence Hargrove Jr.’s 24 points. Junior Traeveion Jones had 11 and senior Zachary Forest had 10.
Flyers senior Joe Reece, a 6-8 senior headed for Old Dominion, was hounded by Liddell throughout the game and finished with six points before fouling out with 1:46 to play.
“Joe Reece is a really good player – really good,” Liddell said. “We just all did our thing. We’re friends off the court, but on the court, we aren’t friends. We just had to play. We were just all playing together. That’s what we do all the time in practice. ... That’s a good team. They have a lot of good players. TJ (Hargrove), that’s my friend. And Joe.”
Liddell had 20 points and all three of his 3-pointers in the first half, which ended with the Maroons on top 45-34. Liddell’s drive through the lane led to a windmill dunk with 4:38 remaining in the third quarter that made it 61-48.
Reece had an open track to the basket later in the quarter, but couldn’t convert a dunk attempt. That led the West students to chant, “He’s not EJ!”
The Maroons never led by fewer than 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Liddell wasn’t flawless. He was whistled for three traveling calls in a short amount of time in the second quarter and also was charged with an offensive foul.
“The travels, (he) was just a little bit out of control,” Muniz said. “But he carried us on his back. And Keith was phenomenal. He was on the boards, he was active. Keth is a load. He wears you out. He’s so strong.”
Reece no doubt is a talented player, but Friday wasn’t his night as he made just 2 of 11 shots from the field.
“We have two guys that are considered stars on our team,” Stevenson said of Reece and the 6-7 Hargrove, who has offers from Missouri, Saint Louis University, New Mexico, Illinois State and Cleveland State. “Tonight, (Liddell) stifled both of them.
“When Joe’s in foul trouble, that takes away his aggression. He’s taking this hard because he’s a competitor. He and TJ Hargrove watched EJ Liddell have one heck of a game tonight. Our team feeds off those guys. They were trying their best, but EJ Liddell, tonight was his night — like most nights.”