Edwardsville couldn't have asked for a better start Friday. But the Belleville West Maroons had the final word.
The fourth-seeded Tigers led 13-5 with 2:55 to play in the first quarter, but top-seeded West closed the first half with a 23-8 run that paved the way for a 68-44 victory in the championship game of the Class 4A O'Fallon Regional.
"We came out a little bit slow; they came out hot," said 6-foot-7 West junior EJ Liddell, who scored 21 points. "They were holding the ball and getting a lot of buckets (out of the spread), but we kept our composure and played like we've been playing all season. We got out there and guarded, got a couple of steals and got our momentum."
The Maroons (27-2), ranked second in the Class 4A state poll, will see how far that momentum will take them. Next up is a game against Quincy (23-4) in the semifinals of the Pekin Sectional at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Alton High in Gofrey.
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Quincy ripped Alton 57-36 on Friday in the title game of the regional in Quincy.
Junior Lawrence Brazil III added 20 points for the Maroons, including 17 in the second half as West pulled away. Senior Malachi Smith scored 12 points and senior Curtis Williams had 11 points and two 3-pointers.
Edwardsville senior Jack Marinko scored a game-best 28 points and made six 3-pointers to eclipse 1,000 points in his career. Senior Caleb Strohmeier had seven points before fouling out with 2:42 left in the game.
"They blitzed us right off the bat," West coach Joe Muniz said. "What do you say about Jack Marinko? The kid just hit shot after shot in the first quarter. But what do you say about my guys and how they guarded the rest of the game. For us to only be down five at the end of the first quarter, that was a huge thing for us after the way we started.
"We turned them over, got some easy layups, got the ball to EJ, got some offensive rebounds. In the first quarter, I told them, 'They can't keep playing this well all game long.' We wanted to wear them out; we wanted to make the game faster. They executed well in the first quarter, but I thought we executed really well the last three."
Edwardsville finished 18-9. It was the final game for coach Mike Waldo, who completed his 30th year on the Tigers' bench.
Just like after the regular-season finale a week earlier against Belleville East, Waldo, 60, didn't want to discuss his future.
"I don't think right now is the time to talk about that," Waldo said, shifting the focus to his players. "These guys are such good guys. Our team has done so good this year. We've gotten better and better and better, and we have because these guys have worked hard."
Waldo finished 646-215 (.750) at Edwardsville and 727-266 (.732) in 35 seasons overall, including five at Alton Marquette. He needs to work two more years for full retirement benefits.
"We'll talk about that later," Waldo said when asked whether he still wants to coach.
Muniz will miss Waldo. The two had a brief conversation before the game.
"He just talked about how great we've been playing," Muniz said. "I said the same thing about them. He's a class act. He's a great coach."
Marinko hit three 3-pointers in the first 5:05 as the Tigers built their 13-5 lead.
Liddell scored all of the Maroons' first-quarter points as they cut the gap to 15-10. West tied it at 15 on Brazil's 3-pointer and two free throws by Smith. Edwardsville took its final lead at 21-20 on a layup by junior Jaylon Tuggle with 1:35 left in the second quarter.
"I was just telling everybody, 'Calm down. We've got it. This is our game,'" Liddell said.
The Maroons took control for good by scoring the final eight points of the half to lead 28-21 at the break. The run was culminated when Williams swished a 3-pointer out of the right corner with five seconds left.
West took a 34-23 lead in the third quarter, only to see Edwardsville rally within 34-28 on a 3-pointer by Marinko and a driving layup by Marinko. The Maroons recovered, scoring the next six to move ahead 40-28.
The Tigers, who shot 43 percent (18 of 42), were no closer than nine in the final 9:40, and fell behind by as many as 25 points.
"This is very important," said Muniz, whose team shot 48 percent (24 of 50). "To beat a quality program and a quality coach like Mike, it's a feather in our cap."
Marinko hated to see the Tigers' season end.
"We executed the game plan perfectly (in the first quarter)," he said. "But we got away from it a little bit in the second quarter and we got in foul trouble with Caleb and (RJ) Wilson. But for the most part, I thought we had a great season."
Reaching 1,000 points, Marinko said, "was a big accomplishment."
"I just wanted to come out and play my game," he said. "I wasn't really focused on it. I knew I was close, but I wanted to worry about it after the game."