Highland used a zone to contain East St. Louis' two-pronged attack of 6-foot-9 senior Joe Reece and 6-7 junior Terrence Hargrove Jr., forcing the other three Flyers on the court to have to step up to beat the Bulldogs.
The first part of the plan worked, as Reece and Hargrove combined for two points in the first half. But the East St. Louis guards were up to the task, knocking down eight 3-pointers to help the Flyers to a 64-54 win in the championship of the Class 3A Highland Regional on Friday.
"That was key, because we've been talking the last couple of days about the others on this team," said East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers, who was hired halfway through the season and led the Flyers (15-10) to their first regional title since 2013. "Everybody knows about Reece and Hargrove, but we have some really good guards in this program, and I just challenged them to show it tonight. And they came out and did it.
"Our guards were able to open it up for (Reece and Hargrove) a little bit in the first half. So in the second half, we wanted to really attack the rim, and that's what we did. It worked out for us."
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Cornelius Leflore buried two in the first quarter and Jashawn Anderson, Traeveion Jones and Jabril Olivaria each hit one to help the Flyers take an 18-11 lead. Jones pumped in eight points in the second quarter, and East St. Louis retained its seven points advantage (30-23) at halftime.
Reece, an Old Dominion recruit, was able to get on track in the second half as he scored 13 of his 15 points.
Hargrove got in the on act in the fourth quarter with all seven of hits points, including a two-handed dunk 26 seconds after Reece threw down a one-handed jam to put the game away at 58-48 with 1:35 remaining.
Reece and Anderson shared team-high honors with 15 points apiece, and Leflore had 14 points.
Highland was paced by 6-4 junior Sam LaPorta with a game-best 18 points. Junior Brady Feldmann also hit double figures with 13 points, and 6-8 junior Stephen Torre and 6-3 junior Jake Kruse each had eight points for the Bulldogs.
"We just played as a team today, and that was a big team win," said Reece, who also had nine rebounds and seven assists. "At practice, we talked about everybody playing as a team, and if we come together as a whole team, we can be a whole lot more successful than we normally were. So we came out here today and we facilitated the ball and we played together, and good results happened. So I just want to say thanks to the coaches and my teammates. I am happy to be at East Side. It's been a great experience. "
Highland second-year coach Brian Perkes said his team would play the same way against East St. Louis if the Bulldogs had another shot at the Flyers.
"We told our kids going in that, if we lose this game, we're going to force the other three players on the floor besides Reece and Hargrove to beat us, and they did. Hats off to East St. Louis; their other kids stepped up," said Perkes, whose team finished 21-9. "Reece got loose late when we had to extend the press a little bit, and they found him in the middle. But up until then, we kept those guys in check. We had chances up until about a minute and half to go or so. Our kids played hard, we did miss some inside shots. We needed to play a little cleaner game than what we did, but all in all, we played pretty good."
When Chambers was called about taking over the coaching position at East St. Louis after he had spent 12 years as an assistant at Cahokia, he was told he would need to be a stabilizing force as the Flyers' sixth head coach in the past seven years. Winning the regional title validates his hiring all the more.
"Coming in, these kids didn't know me, but they trusted me, and in any program, trust is a big part of it," Chambers said. "They trusted me, and I trusted them, and they've done everything that I could possibly ask them to do. I am so proud of them, so happy for them, because they are so resilient. They've been through so much, but they've never quit. They never put their heads down. They've always battled. Everyday, they come into the gym and they try to get better. That's all that I can ask for."
Reece said that few gave East Side a chance to get past the regionals.
"But we all just stayed in the gym and trusted the process," he said. "So we all just kept pushing ourselves, and we finally got it here at East Side. And it's not over. We're going to get back in the gym, because we got a lot of things we've got to work on and get better for sectionals."
East St. Louis, which has won five in a row and seven of its last eight games, will play sectional host Centralia in the Sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday.