The last time Belleville West won the Centralia Holiday Tournament was during the last season the Maroons were coached by someone other than Joe Muniz.
In the 14 intervening years, Muniz says he can’t recall a field any more competitive than the one the Maroons conquered in the annual tournament’s 75th edition.
West had to go through Collierville, Tenn. (6-3), Confluence Academy (10-2) and Alton (9-1) to reach the championship game for the second year in a row.
Saturday, Muniz led the Maroons (12-1) past Champaign Central (9-3) 62-61 to capture their first holiday tournament title since Bill Schmidt did it in 2003.
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“In the 15 years I’ve been coming here with Belleville West, and the 14 years I’ve been head coach, I don’t know if the field, top to bottom, can be any better,” said Muniz, who picked up his 190th win Saturday. “People were telling me last night, ‘You shouldn’t be playing Confluence in the second round.’ And they were right. Confluence is really good, but who wasn’t? Who wasn’t really good in that winners’ bracket?”
Belleville West did it behind tournament MVP EJ Liddell, the four-star junior who picked up a scholarship offer personally from Northwestern coach Chris Collins. He scored 22 of his tournament-best 87 points as Illinois coach Brad Underwood also watched from the front row.
Liddell averaged 21.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and blocked 17 shots over the four games. Senior guard Malachi Smith, who scored nine in the title game, averaged 17.5 points to earn first-team all-tournament honors.
“I wish there was an MVP trophy for everybody,” said Liddell. “I did my part and everybody did their part. We work on a lot of situations in practice so we execute in the clutch very well. It took everybody to win this.”
It took clutch plays from several for West to pull off their win over Champaign Central.
Belleville West led at the half, but trailed 45-39 midway through the third quarter when Champaign Central senior Tim Finke banked a turnaround jumper.
Finke, a 6-7 shooting guard, had scholarship offers from most of the Big Ten, including Illinois, but committed in November to Grand Canyon University. He finished with 21 points, but was held without another field goal after West’s switch from a zone to man-to-man defense in the second half.
“We switched over to man and wanted to pressure them and make their guards handle it,” Muniz said. “I think that changed the game. The other thing is that we made some shots.”
Jaylin Mosby drained two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, one to put West ahead 51-49, and the second to stretch the lead to four points with a little over a minute left.
Later, with 22 seconds on the clock, senior Curtis Williams drove the baseline for a highlight-reel reverse layup that gave the Maroons a four-point lead.
Central had the final possession, but the Maroons’ defensive pressure forced it to burn its last two timeouts before making the in-bound pass. West left Champaign freshman Terry Khailieo unguarded under the basket where his uncontested layup as time expired left his team a point short.
“The last six seconds, we did exactly what we needed to do and they had to burn another timeout,” Muniz said. “We let the guy open inside the arc and he was forced to take the layup without any timeouts left.”
It’s the Maroons’ fourth Centralia Holiday Tournament championship overall. They also won in 1981 under current West assistant Roger Mueller and in 1962 under Jerry Turner.
“Coach told us every game in a tournament is going to get harder and harder,” said Liddell. “We have a good mind-set about our team and were confident we could win this.”