As an eighth-grader, EJ Liddell attended the Highland Shootout with his mother, Michelle. He sat in the upper deck and was hardly noticed.
Such was not the case Saturday after the 6-foot-7 Liddell scored 26 points and blocked nine shots to power the Belleville West Maroons to a 68-51 victory over Poplar Bluff (Mo.) before a capacity crowd of about 3,200.
Liddell was surrounded by dozens of young boys and girls after the game, signing autographs, posing for pictures and enjoying every moment of it.
“I like it a lot. It was fun,” said Liddell, who remembered watching Chaminade’s Jayson Tatum and Althoff’s Jordan Goodwin in similar circumstances in 2015.
“I was saying (to my mom) how I would love to have that opportunity to be signing autographs for kids,” Liddell said. “I always looked up to those guys that signed autographs and made kids happy. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to play like them, make people happy and have them come out and see me play.”
The Maroons (14-1) also got 15 points from senior Malachi Smith and 13 points from junior Keith Randolph as they took control in the second quarter against the Mules (7-7), who are still without junior guard Marcedus Leech, a Division I prospect.
“I had heard so much about the kid,” Maroons coach Joe Muniz said. “I’d love to see the kid play, and I’m sure they want to see him play. The bottom line is you want what’s best for the kid so he’s healthy for his career. He’s got a long career ahead of him. But no doubt, we would want him to be a part of this game.”
West led 17-15 after one quarter, then used a 12-0 run to take a 29-17 advantage. The margin swelled to 37-20 at halftime, 50-32 in the third quarter and 62-40 with about five minutes to play in the game.
“They tried to play us straight-up, and I don’t think that was a good idea,” Liddell said. “We came out and beat them pretty good. Everybody does their part. And it’s not just me because if I’m not having an on night, somebody else might have an on night. It’s good for everybody else.”
Poplar Bluff junior Dominique Hardimon led all scorers with 27 points.
The Maroons have won their past 11 games, and Randolph said they will not be compromised by a selfish approach.
“That’s very important,” Randolph said. “Sometimes we lose our heads, lose the ball and try to force it and stuff, and teams go on runs. We have to keep it together.
“We have a bond off the court and on the court. We hang out every day, go to the movies, watch TV. If you jell off the court, you’ll be stronger on the court as well.”
Muniz said his team was a bit sloppy at the outset.
“We gave them a lot of easy buckets early. Hardimon got some easy (ones),” Muniz said. “They were attacking EJ and then dumping it off. We did a better job of just keeping them in front and making them have to hit shots over us. I thought that was the difference in the game.”
Liddell also had nine blocks Friday in West’s 65-40 triumph at Alton. Muniz enjoys watching the blocks as much as anyone, but it isn’t ideal.
“He’s doing a good job blocking shots. He’s always had that ability,” Muniz said. “As a coach, I’m not real happy how much the other team is getting to the basket. Our guys have to do a better job of keeping their man in front of them. In that regard, I would rather see EJ have less blocked shots and us keeping teams out of the paint.
“If we’re going to be a great team and get to the goals we want to get to, we’ve got to get better at that.”
West already is committed to the shootout next year, too. The environment, Muniz said, was everything the Maroons anticipated.
“How can you not have energy? This is an exciting thing,” Muniz said. “This is a great event. We’re just happy to be a part of it and be asked to be a part of it. If you can’t get up to play in this game, I’m not sure you’ve got a pulse.”