Metro-East Lutheran has been clinging to a Top 10 spot in the Class 1A state rankings all season, currently eighth before the next polls come out on Tuesday.
The Knights (20-3) are the first metro-east boys basketball team to reach 20 wins this season and they just won their second Litchfield Invitational Tournament title Saturday by knocking off Class 3A Civic Memorial 80-70.
However, the Knights also realize they still have a lot to prove. The school owns three regional titles and several 20-win seasons, but never has made a deep playoff run.
“You’re always going to have critics out there no matter what you do,” Metro-East Lutheran coach Anthony Smith said. “For us it’s more along the lines of we’re just trying to get better. I don’t know if we’re trying to impress anybody, but for our team’s sake we just want to be a good ball club, period.
“We want to stick to our game plan and to what our goals are.”
Smith said his team impressed him with a 4-0 run at Litchfield that included wins over Nokomis, Taylorville and Litchfield.
High-scoring Knights senior guard Teddy Fifer won tournament Most Valuable Player honors, firing in 29 points against Litchfield and collecting 19 in the tourney championship game against Civic Memorial. Junior guard Kenrique Brown had 23 against CM while 6-foot-4 senior forward Jason Johnson capped a strong tourney with 17 points, 13 rebounds and four assists on Saturday.
“It’s a very, very good win for us,” Smith said. “Going in I was expecting maybe 3-1, but to go 4-0 was a real blessing for us because there’s some good teams in that tournament. They didn’t give it to us, we had to earn it.
“We’ve been really unselfish with the basketball a lot lately and there’s a lot of kids contributing on the offense.”
With 977 points, the consistent Johnson figures to his 1,000 soon and keep on going. He was voted to the all-tournament team.
“I know what I’m going to get from Jason night-in and night-out,” Smith said. “Consistently he’ll play hard and lay it on the line, I really don’t worry about him compared to what else is going to go on. Jason’s been consistent all year and right now we’re feeding him the ball a whole lot.”
Crusaders keep on rocking
Jordan Goodwin was the MVP of the Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East, but he will never complain about a lack of support.
Far from it.
The Crusaders, who earned the championship with a dynamic 76-72 victory over St. Louis University High on Saturday, received impressive performances from seniors Tarkus Ferguson, Keenen Young and Brendon Gooch, as well as junior C.J. Coldon.
“Getting MVP means a lot to me, being singled out among a lot of (good) players in the tournament,” Goodwin said. “As far as me being a star player, (my teammates) get overlooked in my shadows, but they’re playing ball just like me.”
Coldon continues to make noteworthy improvements, and he dazzled the capacity crowd Saturday with a pair of assists on back-to-back plays to close the first quarter.
First, Coldon fed the trailing Goodwin with a behind-the-back pass that led to Goodwin’s monster dunk over 6-foot-7, 240-pound SLUH junior B.J. Wilson III that put the Crusaders ahead 22-11 with 1:13 left in the quarter.
Coldon was in virtually the same position – just outside the lane on the right side – when he made a picture-perfect lob that Ferguson turned into another dunk that staked Althoff to a 24-11 with 59 seconds remaining in the period.
Althoff built a 28-12 lead, then fell behind 62-59 early in the fourth quarter before rallying for the narrow win. The Crusaders survived a brilliant performance by Junior Billikens junior Brandon McKissic, who scored a game-best 31 points, made five 3-pointers and dished out four assists.
“We hadn’t seen him shoot like that,” Althoff coach Greg Leib said of McKissic, who was 12-for-17 from the field. “Jordan plays AAU ball with him with the (St. Louis) Eagles and he vouched for him, and ‘Goody’ doesn’t like anybody. But he said the kid could play, and he did a good job.”
McKissic, who is being recruited heavily by Missouri State and coach Paul Lusk, the former Wesclin High star, was disappointed about the loss but upbeat about his team.
“I don’t think it was too big of a hole, because in the middle of the game, we kind of pieced together what we needed to do,” McKissic said. “We believed we could beat this team. But after (we took the lead), we kind of laid back down, how we did in the first quarter. We grew as a unit. We realize what we need to do to get better.”
Althoff (17-2) has had just four games this season decided by eight or fewer points.
“This was a great challenge for us. We were fortunate enough that we persevered it, got through it. We got better. The ability to persevere through it and keep competing, that’s a true test. The guys did a great job of that. Even if the outcome wouldn’t have been in our benefit, I would still have been very pleased with how we kept coming (considering) the runs they were making and the shots they were making.”
Goodwin credited the Junior Billikens (12-6), who also fell to Althoff 73-67 in the tournament championship game last year.
“They kept fighting,” Goodwin said. “Last year it was a dogfight. This year, I knew it was going to be a dogfight. They guard well and they’re tough. ... I think the reason they came back is we got a little lazy on defense. We got tired a little bit. We didn’t make shots. The shots weren’t falling, shots we usually make.”
SLUH coach Erwin Claggett, a former Venice High all-stater who also starred at St. Louis University, said his team endured too many struggles on defense to beat a team the caliber of Althoff.
“We had a couple of things to clean up defensively,” Claggett said. “They were all about dribble-drives. I think we gave up the paint way too easy and we didn’t get back in transition. They kind of had us on our heels early, getting some easy points. We got down, but the kids did a good job of fighting back. But we don’t take moral victories. It’s a loss. We have to get better.”
Championship streak ends for Edwardsville
Edwardsville’s streak of four straight tournament championships at the Salem Invitational came to an end Saturday with a 57-52 overtime loss to Centralia on Saturday. Edwardsville junior and Iowa football recruit A.J. Epenesa had 24 points and seven rebounds before fouling out in overtime. The Orphans got 23 points from tourney MVP D’Aaron Owens and 11 from Tyriq Bilberry.
Epenesa was named to the all-tournament team along with Edwardsville teammates Mark Smith and Oliver Stephen.
Stephen had a memorable game in the Tigers’ tourney opener, scoring all 26 of his points in the first half and sinking six of his eight first-half 3-pointers in the opening quarter. Stephen did not play in the second half.
Belleville News-Democrat Boys Basketball Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records through Sunday:
Large school rankings (Class 3A-4A)
East St. Louis
Also receiving votes: Mater Dei (14-4), Belleville West (7-10), Columbia (13-4), Granite City (8-8), Cahokia (8-12), Highland (10-10), Civic Memorial (14-5)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-2A)
Also receiving votes: Wesclin (8-12), Carlyle (10-10), Roxana (14-7)