This wasn’t any old victory for the East St. Louis Flyers.
The Flyers, playing under their fourth coach in the last 10 months, made it a special moment Tuesday for their latest leader on the bench, Mark Chambers.
Junior Terrence Hargrove Jr. scored 22 points and senior Joe Reece had 16 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out in the last minute of East Side’s 69-61 win over Alton. It was Chambers’ first victory as a head coach.
“It’s definitely a relief, especially after last week’s game,” said the 48-year-old Chambers, referring to a 51-49 loss to visiting Granite City on Friday that came when junior Davontay Mason hit a last-second shot. “It’s just great to get that first victory. The guys have worked really hard for me over these last few days. They really bought in to what I was selling.
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“I’m very happy for them. There’s been a lot of adversity for them. I’m just trying to come in and be that stabilizing force for them. I’m just really, really happy.”
The players appear to be, too.
“It’s good to have him here,” the 6-foot-8 Reece said of Chambers. “He’s a great coach. The first day of practice, we worked on fundamental stuff.”
Which is what Hargrove said the Flyers most needed.
“Now that we have a new coach, we can finally turn our season around and make the best of it,” said Hargrove, who also had 10 rebounds and five blocks in the victory. “We have a good coach on our hands. We just have to buy into the system and play hard as a team.
“He’s just a more fundamental coach. He likes to get the little things (down). He breaks down every part of our practice to make sure we understand it and get it through our heads.”
Chambers was hired Jan. 3 after Fernando Stevenson resigned, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Stevenson had replaced Stetson Hairston just prior to the season. Hairston replaced Phillip Gilbert, who had coached the Flyers the last two seasons.
The Flyers have been inconsistent throughout the season. They are just 8-7 after the win over Alton, which includes a 3-4 mark in the Southwestern Conference.
Reece, who had a bout with the flu in the last week of December that landed him in the hospital, has no doubt East Side will turn things around.
“Honestly, it’s Coach,” Reece said. “Coach Chambers works harder with us in practice. He pushes us. We work on the fundamental things, the little things. He tells us if we buy in and play as a team, we can beat anybody and we can be successful. We’re working with him, and hopefully the season will get better and better for us.”
While the players are transitioning to Chambers, Chambers also is challenged learning the players, coming to grips with their strengths, weaknesses and nuances.
“It was definitely a difficult transition for me, especially the first couple of days,” Chambers said. “Getting to just know the players ... The first game, I was still learning their names and everything. But now, I’m starting to become more comfortable and they’re starting to get more comfortable with me. We’re having some fun.”
The Flyers took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but trailed 12-7 at the end of the period. East Side regrouped to lead 31-28 at halftime, then built a 46-40 margin in the third quarter.
The lead was at least three points throughout the fourth quarter. Reece’s tip-in made it 61-55 with 2:04 to play. Reece’s three-point play 24 seconds later made it 64-57, and sophomore Jashawn Anderson (12 points) it two free throws to extend the lead to 66-57 with 1:08 left.
Alton fell to 9-5 and 5-2 with its fourth consecutive loss.
“Even though we had those (sloppy) moments, we were still able to regroup, bring it back together and pull the game out,” Chambers said. “I have a core group of guys, but I’m trying to put the pieces together. Tonight, everybody that played gave me great effort. That’s what’s key.
“It was a tough loss (Friday). To lose in that manner was definitely tough, but the guys didn’t put their heads down one bit. When we went in for the postgame speech, they were OK. They’re a very resilient bunch. That’s the thing I’m starting to see.”
Chambers is eager to get back to work Wednesday.
“Every practice, we’re working on the little things. That’s what I’m trying to get them to understand,” Chambers said. “We can play fancy basketball, but fancy basketball doesn’t necessarily win games. We’re working on fundamentals every day. On the defensive end, especially, we’re going to get after it.”
Chambers said there’s “no question” the Flyers have time to turn it around and be the team many observes believe they would be this season.
“If they continue to work the way they’ve been working and we continue to progress, (Class) 3A is open. That’s what I’m telling them right now,” Chambers said. “We’re not playing for Jan. 9, we’re playing for March 9. We’re trying to make a run toward Peoria. That’s our goal.”