Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell played no small part in getting Keith Randolph to transfer to Belleville West from Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis.
And nobody in the Centralia High School gym was happier than Liddell to have his 6-foot-5 best friend available as an understudy Thursday night.
Randolph led a 22-point effort by the Maroons’ bench in a 69-68 come-from-behind win over Thornton Fractional North at the 74th Centralia Holiday Tournament.
With the victory, West (7-3) advances to the tournament semifinals, hoping for its first championship since 2003. The Maroons will face Centralia Friday at 2 p.m.
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“We wouldn’t be here talking happy today if Keith Randolph didn’t step up in the second and third quarters and do what he did,” said Belleville West coach Joe Muniz. “He came in and gave us some energy that we needed — got some steals, some big rebounds and scored.”
Liddell and senior Tyler Dancy led the Maroons with 16 points each, but both fouled out late in the tight game.
Randolph entered midway through the second quarter after Liddell was whistled for his third foul and scored 10 points before Liddell returned at the start of the fourth quarter.
Randolph’s tip-in at the third-quarter buzzer was part of a 17-4 rally that led to the Maroons their first lead of the game with 4:42 left. It was a lead they didn’t surrender.
“E.J. has been my best friend since we played AAU basketball together in sixth grade, and I’ve always wanted to play with him in high school,” Liddell said. “It’s been great here at West, especially tonight since I was able to come in and help the team come away with a big W.”
TF-North (10-2) will face Georgetown (Tennessee) in the consolation bracket game at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
TF-North led by as many as 12 points, but an 8-2 run to close the first half to keep the Maroons close.
They closed the third quarter on a 7-0 run and opened the fourth with a 10-4 rally highlighted with Liddell’s two-handed dunk, which got West within a point. Senior Justin Wright at long last gave West its first lead, 60-59, by turning a Meteor turnover into an easy layup.
“In the second half we did a much better job shutting their stuff down,” Muniz said. “More importantly we got hungry on the offensive glass. And there is no stopping E.J. and Tyler when we can get them the ball.”
Dancy ended consecutive TF-North possessions with blocked shots, and the Maroons widened the lead to five with 2:30 left in the game.
It was a gap the Meteors couldn’t close, even as Dancy and Liddell fouled out and West came up empty on two trips to the free-throw line.
DeAndre Jackson closed out the Belleville West scoring with a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left.
“Dre stepped in and hit two big free throws, which is what seniors need to do,” Muniz said. “I think there were some things we could have done better, but more than anything, I think the tenacity and their sheer will win that game was huge.”
Dancy added 13 rebounds to go with his 16 points. Liddell and Randolph also each had seven boards.
TF-North had four players reach double figures including Jadacus Dixon’s game-high 18. The Meteors managed just four points off their bench, however.
West shot 42.9 percent from the field, including five 3-point baskets. TF-North show 45.2 percent.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story reported that West had not been to the tournament semifinals since 2003, which was the last year the Maroons won the championship.