The Belleville West Maroons were confident they could win the Class 4A state championship.
But former Maroons great Joe Wiley might have put them over the top.
West coach Joe Muniz asked Wiley, a star on the Maroons' 1965-66 team that placed third in the state tournament, to speak to his players Saturday before they defeated Whitney Young 60-56 in overtime to win the title at Carver Arena in Peoria.
"I was delighted," said Wiley, 69. "I told them, 'You guys are a good team. You're well-coached. You play together. You're on a roll. You'll win it all.' I firmly believed it. I felt the Maroons would go all the way."
Wiley noticed how the Maroons were pounding opponents in the postseason. There was a 33-point victory over Quincy in the sectional semifinals. A 20-point win over Moline in the sectional final. A 38-point decision against West Aurora in the super-sectional.
"They were on a roll," Wiley said. "I texted each one of my teammates from the 1966 team and said, 'The Maroons are going to win state.' They called me back the next day and said, 'What happened?' I said, 'They won state!'
"I wanted to make sure my teammates knew, because it was so nostalgic for me. I thought about my team and how hard we had worked as seniors, because we were all seniors on that '66 team. We were determined to get to state. And when we did, and there was a big celebration afterward ... We'll never forget it."
Wiley said the West players asked him whether the 1966 team could have beaten them.
"I said, 'Well, we were pretty good. You guys are pretty athletic, but we were big. We had some good players,'" Wiley said. "It's like, 'Who was the best heavyweight fighter of all time?' Roger Mueller (West's former coach) was standing there. I said, 'Roger, what do you think?' Roger said, 'Well, you guys were big. The game has changed.' But neither one of us, Roger or I, could say for sure.
"This team is really good, and they'll probably be back and win it again next year. They have the players to do it."
First-team all-stater EJ Liddell along with Keith Randolph Jr. and Lawrence Brazil III will be the Maroons' top returning players next season. Starters Malachi Smith and Curtis Williams will graduate. Several bench players also will be back to fill bigger roles.
"I thought their guards were really good," Wiley said of Smith, Brazil and Williams. "They played good defense, they handled the ball, they could go to the basket, they could shoot it. I was really impressed with the guards.
"And, of course, Liddell and Randolph. I thought (Randolph) was a difference-maker in the tournament. He came up with some big plays. I love the way he hustles. He's got that wide body and he's got some skills. He's relentless."
The 6-foot-7 Liddell, who has 13 scholarship offers from Division I schools, averaged 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.9 blocks and 2.8 steals. Liddell passed Wiley's late brother, Milton, to become the Maroons' career scoring leader in the semifinals against Elgin Larkin, then eclipsed Joe Wiley as the single-season scoring leader in the final against Whitney Young.
"He's a handful — and a fine young man. I like him a lot," Wiley said. "He's a blue-chipper. He'll be able to go anywhere. He can shoot it, he's got a good temperament, a good body. He can play inside or out, although he loves (being) outside and shooting the 3. Yet, he's strong enough that he can dominate inside if he wants to.
"A guy like EJ comes along every once in a while."
Wiley said he didn't mind seeing Liddell break his single-season scoring record. He said Milton would have enjoyed watching Liddell break his career scoring mark, too. Milton Wiley died of cancer in 1993.
"Milton would be right there, just like me, congratulating him," Joe Wiley said. "I'm very happy with his records, and he's going to go a long way, in my opinion. I like his character and he's got all the tools."
Wiley has mostly fond memories of the Maroons' race for the championship in 1966. They defeated Lawrenceville 92-88 in overtime in the super-sectional, then slipped past Joliet 74-72 in the state quarterfinals. In the semifinals, they lost to Galesburg 65-64. The game ended with a controversial no-call when it appeared Wiley was fouled in the paint just before time expired.
Wiley said Maroons coach Jerry Turner, who was in his seventh and final season, was told by one of the officials that he was unable to get the whistle to his mouth in time to call the foul.
The Maroons came back in the third-place game and drubbed Stephen Decatur 84-57. However, they were unable to face Harvey Thornton, which defeated Galesburg 74-60 in the championship game.
"When we came back from the state tournament, the crowd we had was unprecedented," Wiley said. "We started (the parade) in French Village, down the hill on (Illinois) 157. The streets were packed all the way to the courthouse. There was a sea of people around the entire square. Cheerleaders from other schools were there cheering us. East Side's cheerleaders, Mascoutah's.
"We're 17 years old. We couldn't believe it. Our bus was stopped about 10 miles from Belleville and we had a police escort. The mayor (Charles Nichols) got on the bus and gave us all a key to the city. We had no idea. It was an incredible outpouring."
Wiley went on to star at Saint Louis University, averaging 17.5 points and corralling 747 rebounds in his career. He was an all-Missouri Valley Conference first-team pick in 1970 when he lead the league in scoring. He later spent 20 years as a broadcaster with the Billikens.
Wiley is in seven different sports hall of fames and still is working as owner of Quest Management Consultants.
"I've been lucky," Wiley said. "There's life after basketball."