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Belleville West is two wins from a state title. Its first challenge is Elgin Larkin.

Belleville West reaches state boys basketball tournament

The Belleville West Maroons celebrate their first berth in the state tournament since the 2002-03 season.
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The Belleville West Maroons celebrate their first berth in the state tournament since the 2002-03 season.

Coach Joe Muniz is a math teacher at Belleville West, and the numbers are dazzling for his Maroons.

West (30-2) enters the Class 4A state tournament in Peoria with the best record in the four-team field, a 13-game winning streak and an average margin of victory of 23.2 points. The Maroons haven't scored fewer than 62 points in a game.

In the final four for the first time in 52 years and in the tourney for the first time since 2003, West will face the Elgin Larkin Royals (24-8) in the semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Carver Arena. The winner will meet Evanston (26-5) or Whitney Young (27-7) in the championship game at 7:15 p.m. Saturday. Evanston and Whitney Young meet in the other semifinal at 7:15 p.m. Friday.

"They're very athletic," Muniz said of the Royals, winners of six straight. "When you get to this point of the season, everybody's good. They've had a great run. We just need to keep doing what we're doing, worry about ourselves and control what we can control."

The Royals snapped Benet Academy's 18-game winning streak Tuesday with a 53-46 victory in the DeKalb Super-Sectional. The Maroons, meanwhile, ended West Aurora's 17-game surge with a commanding 81-43 win in the Normal Super-Sectional.

Larkin has a 6-foot-10 senior in Jalen Shaw, who averages a double-double at 16.3 points and 12.1 rebounds. Anthony Lynch is a 6-3 senior who averages 20 points, five rebounds and four assists, and 6-0 senior Pierre Black averages 8.2 points with 80 3-pointers.

Shaw has offers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Illinois-Chicago, Manhattan and several junior colleges.

"The 6-10 kid is something we haven't seen this year," Muniz said. "He's a good player. We've got to be aggressive with him and be smart. He's a good shot-blocker, a good rebounder. He's very good in the post; he's got pretty good skills. (So) they're a little bit different just because of the 6-10 kid.

"But they put five good athletes out there. Like us, and like West Aurora, they utilize their defense to create a lot of their offense. They get out and pressure and get in the passing lanes. We're going to have to take care of the basketball. We're going to have to rebound and do a good of getting on the glass. If we can keep them to one shot and one shot only, that's going to be a big advantage."

Shaw had 16 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday. Black had 18 points and Lynch chipped in with 16.

The Royals' coach is Deryn Carter, a 1998 graduate of Larkin.

"We are definitely the underdog (against West)," Carter told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Anybody who is saying we should win this game is probably not paying attention. But we aren’t going to go out there and back down. We are going to prepare to win."

The Maroons were all smiles as they posed for pictures Friday after their sectional championship game win over Moline.

Larkin's concern, of course, is with Maroons 6-7 junior EJ Liddell, who had 26 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday. But 6-3 senior Malachi Smith, 6-5 junior Keith Randolph Jr. and 5-11 junior Lawrence Brazil III are stars in their own right who came up big Tuesday.

"We're ready to keep this thing rolling," Smith said. "We're going to have fun, be confident and keep doing what we've done all year. (Larkin) is a good team if they've made it to the final four. But we're a good team, too. I know we have what it takes."

Liddell, recently named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, is in position to set two school records in the Maroons' final two games. He has 1,718 career points, second only to the late Milton Wiley (1,726). Liddell has 667 points this season, which trails only Joe Wiley (703 points in 1965-66), Milton Wiley (683 in 1974-75) and Roy King (668 in 1995-96).

"The thing about him is it's not about him. It's about the team," Muniz said. "That's been his motto the whole time. He's done a lot of great things, but he knows, I know and (others) know that without his teammates, he wouldn't be where he's at today.

"I know he's going to go out and have a great weekend."

With Liddell (20.8 points), Smith (15.7) and Brazil (10.5) all averaging in double figures and with Randolph (9.7) not far behind, Muniz acknowledges the Maroons' prolific offense. But their defense has played a profound role in their success.

No team has scored more than 52 points against West in five postseason games, and opponents have been limited to 50 or fewer points 14 times.

"We guard pretty well," Muniz said. "Everybody looks at the points that we score, but what about the points the other team doesn't score. This team, from day one, has bought into the fact that defense wins championships. Our guys believe in it."

Belleville West junior Lawrence Brazil III talks about the Maroons' sectional title win over Moline.

Senior guard Curtis Williams agrees.

"My thing is I don't have to score too much as long as I can play defense and keep my man in front of me," said the 5-11 Williams, who ranks fourth on the team with 33 steals. "That's my role with this team: defense.

"I think we have what it takes to win. This is a great team. We all play together, work hard and play our hardest to get the job done. We're playing loose and easy, but we've got to bring it (Friday). No letups."

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