Belleville West guard Malachi Smith had two options with the clock winding down and the game tied.
He could pass the ball outside to junior teammate EJ Liddell or take the ball to the basket himself. With double coverage tight on Liddell, Smith went with the second choice.
He found an open layup with 1.7 seconds left to give the Maroons a 65-63 win over Confluence Academy in the quarterfinals of the 75th annual Centralia Holiday Tournament on Friday.
West will face Southwestern Conference rival Alton in the semifinals at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The championship game is scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m.
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“We do situationals in practice all the time,” said Smith, who finished with 22 points. “I know that if they double me to kick it out to EJ, but if I can get a full head of steam, a layup is an easier shot to make than a turn-around 3.
“I saw how much time was left, and I had room to attack the basket.”
The Maroons had worked on the play all week long anticipating they’d get a tight game from a deeper Centralia tournament than they’ve seen in recent years.
Confluence Academy entered the game at 10-2, having not lost since playing in the Washington Tournament of Champions at the start of the season. That’s the last time the now 10-1 Maroons lost, too.
“Coach was telling us we were going to get their best shot,” Smith said. “We saw them in play in Washington, and we knew coming in they were a good team and thought they would come in with a chip on their shoulders.”
Confluence matched Belleville West’s size with 6-foot-8 center Ahmad Hodges and 6-7 forward Leon Perry, who led the Titans with 20 points and 11 rebounds. In fact, West was outrebounded for the first time all year.
The Titans’ physical plan of attack at times slowed the Maroons, especially in the second quarter.
West took an early 10-point lead, but Confluence made incremental gains until Brandon Fredrick’s two 3-pointers sparked an 8-0 run that put the Titans on top 36-34 just after halftime. That lead would grow to no greater than six points.
Still, it was resistance the Maroons haven’t seen since Washington. West hadn’t won a game this season by fewer than 16 points.
“They’ve got the bodies to match us physically,” said West coach Joe Muniz. “Our kids have to learn to handle that because we haven’t seen a whole lot of that physicality. If you’re going to be a great team, you have to deal with it. As the game wore on, though, I think we got better.”
And Confluence might have worn down. Its three top players — Hodges, Perry and Jermaine Bell — each had four fouls by the end of the third quarter. Only Hodges fouled out, but the others had to keep a safer distance on defense.
The Titans tied the game on a tip-in by Perry with 27 seconds left, but that left Belleville West with the last shot.
“Coach was talking about adversity all week at practice, and we all knew this was going to be a good test for us,” said Smith, minutes after his game-winning layup. “Games like this will only help us out down the road.”
Liddell scored a game-high 26 points for West. Keith Randolph added nine to go with 11 rebounds.
Confluence senior Brandon Fredrick entered the game leading the St. Louis region with 31.1 points per game. The Maroons held him to 14.
“Curtis Williams was key because (Fredrick) did not get a lot of good looks tonight,” Muniz said. “We were a little upset that Perry got the points he got, but you can’t contain them both. Curtis did a great job guarding him.”