East St. Louis double-teamed Edwardsville junior A.J. Epenesa in the low blocks as often as possible Friday. But in the end, it was all for naught.
The 6-foot-5 Epenesa scored 30 points on 10-for-13 shooting from the field and grabbed 13 rebounds as the Tigers defeated the Flyers 63-54 in a Southwestern Conference game. Epenesa, an Iowa football recruit, also was 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
“They were getting pretty physical down there, but I was just trying to make the right reads and get the right looks to try to help us out as much as I can,” Epenesa said. “We came out and were prepared for everything they had.”
Epenesa fouled out with 59.3 seconds to play in the game. By then, the damage had been done as the Tigers improved to 17-4 overall and 9-0 in the SWC.
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“He’s a load, man,” East St. Louis coach Phillip Gilbert said. “He’s strong, physical, athletic – the total package when it comes to a power forward. He stepped up and did his job as one of the team leaders.”
Junior Mark Smith added 17 points for Edwardsville and junior Oliver Stephen had eight. The Tigers were 21-for-24 from the free-throw line, helping them overcome 16 turnovers.
They were getting pretty physical down there, but I was just trying to make the right reads and get the right looks to try to help us out as much as I can. We came out and were prepared for everything they had.
Edwardsville junior A.J. Epenesa on the Tigers’ victory over East St. Louis
The Flyers (9-11, 5-4) committed just seven turnovers and tried to take down Edwardsville largely on 3-pointers. They attempted 33, making just nine.
“We knew they were going to pack it in,” Gilbert said. “All week, we prepared to step up and make shots. We shot a lot of shots in practice all week, from the wings and the corners, knowing that’s how they were going to play us. Some went in, some didn’t. That’s basketball. It goes like that sometimes.”
Senior Patrick Baxter and juniors Arthur Carter and Kerion Chairs had nine points apiece for East St. Louis. Sophomore Zachary Forest had eight.
Edwardsville led 17-16 after one quarter, 30-28 at halftime and 40-38 after three quarters as the Flyers pressured the perimeter to make it difficult to feed the inside.
The Tigers couldn’t shake East Side until late in the fourth quarter when Stephen began a 9-0 uprising with two free throws that made it 52-47 with 3:03 to play.
He’s a load, man. He’s strong, physical, athletic – the total package when it comes to a power forward. He stepped up and did his job as one of the team leaders.
East St. Louis coach Phillip Gilbert on Edwardsville star A.J. Epenesa
Epenesa followed with a driving layup that made it 54-47, and Epenesa then fed Smith for a layup that made it 56-47 with 2:05 left. Stephen followed with the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer from the right corner that made it 59-47 with 1:22 to play.
Waldo complimented Epenesa for another huge game.
“He was doubled a lot and they came from different places. I thought their defensive scheme was good,” Waldo said. “He scored when he had the opportunity and he passed when he wasn’t open. He did a good job defensively, too.
“They’re hard to play against. We did a good job in our defense, our guys keeping them from getting all the way to the basket and making them shoot some long shots.”
Smith fell hard to the floor in the first quarter and momentarily exited the game to attend to a cut over his eye, but he returned to keep the Tigers’ offense percolating.
“He did a very good job distributing the ball and getting us in our offense,” said Waldo, whose team shot 63 percent (20-for-32). “It was a hard night because he was under heavy duress.”
By the numbers
Officials called 35 fouls, leading to 37 free throws. East Side was just 7-for-13.
Baxter, like Epenesa, fouled out in the fourth quarter.
The Flyers shot 33 percent (19-for-58).
“We needed to step up with confidence and make shots,” Gilbert said. “A lot of them fell, but the big ones that mattered, they didn’t go down tonight. We followed the game plan. We tried to pressure the ball. Edwardsville’s a great team. I give them a lot of credit. But I also give my guys a lot of credit for stepping up and playing their butts off.”