After a lackluster conference loss to Alton last week — and the extended locker room meeting with coach Jeff Creek that followed — senior Jordan Yates and Jaylen Lacey were determined to lead a reboot of the Belleville East Lancers.
On senior night, the two leaders scored a combined 33 points and fueled a high-intensity defensive effort in a 56-45 win over O’Fallon on Friday.
“Me and Jaylen talked before the game and said we wanted to hold them under 15 for the first half,” said Yates, who led East with 19 points. “We accomplished that, and I’m really happy about it.”
East held O’Fallon to just three field goals in the first half, including a 30-foot 3-point basket by Jalen Hodge in the waning seconds of the second quarter.
Despite an 11-3 flurry that got them to within eight points with 1:15 left in the game, the Panthers finished 12 for 46 from the field (26 percent).
“We only got one shot at the basket almost every possession,” said O’Fallon coach Brian Muniz, whose team lost its third in a row. “It was definitely a struggle.”
The Lancers got key minutes off the bench, mostly from the seniors who were celebrated with their parents before tipoff. Alex Smith, a 6-foot-6 forward, blocked a pair of shots, Riley Barnes pitched in six points and Freddie Waller forced an O’Fallon turnover.
The unintended benefit of their contributions was the rest they afforded the starters.
“I wanted to make sure we got all the seniors in, but then they played great, so they stayed in longer,” said Creek, much happier than a week ago. “Plus we had a couple of guys in foul trouble, so we had to go deep a couple more deep than we normally do.
“I’ve realized that Jaylen Lacey and Jordan Yates have to get breathers sometimes, so just a couple minutes here and there really benefited us tonight.”
The Lancers opened their widest lead of the night at 27-9 with 1:29 left in the first half. O’Fallon made runs in both the third and fourth quarters to narrow the lead to eight late in the game.
Hodge, one of O’Fallon’s leading scorers at 21.5 points per game, drained four 3-pointers to pace the Panthers. Ronnie Anthony also scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half.
Belleville East shot 41 percent from the field, including a pair of first-half 3-pointers by junior Isaiah May. Creek was most pleased with the Lancers sustained effort on defense.
“We were preaching a lot this week about playing with a sense of urgency from the start, and the kids did a great job stepping up with the effort,” he said. “We were fouling, but I would rather foul when we’re playing that hard than get caught being passive.”
East improved to 11-12 with four Southwestern Conference games remaining, all on the road. Belleville West is up next at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
O’Fallon fell to 9-14. The Panthers play Tuesday at Granite City.