Senior Mark Smith and the Edwardsville Tigers remained in overdrive Friday.
The Tigers opened the third quarter with a 9-0 run that put them in firm control en route to a 75-58 victory over O’Fallon in a Southwestern Conference game.
Edwardsville, which won its ninth in a row, outscored the Panthers 19-7 in the quarter and cruised to the win as Smith scored a game-high 34 points.
“They’re a good team. They beat Belleville East last week,” Smith said. “I thought we came out and had a great game plan and executed it perfectly.”
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Smith said it was a priority to come out in the third quarter and take it to the undersized Panthers, who trailed just 34-30 at halftime.
“We always try to come out of the gate strong in the second half. Don’t give the (other) team any momentum,” Smith said. “We really rebounded well after the first (half). They might have only gotten one (rebound) in the second half. I thought we did a great job.”
Edwardsville, which is idle until Jan. 13 at Alton, improved to 13-1 overall and 5-1 in the SWC. Senior Oliver Stephen chipped in with 13 points for the Tigers and made four 3-pointers, while senior Nathan Kolesa made his first start of the season and had 11 points.
The Tigers won twice this week without 6-foot-6 senior AJ Epenesa, the Iowa football recruit who will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday in San Antonio.
O’Fallon, which got 17 points from senior Ryan Fulton and 10 points from senior Deion Norfleet, fell to 9-5 and 3-3 and saw their three-game winning streak come to an end.
“When they go spread offense, it’s tough to stop,” Panthers coach Brian Muniz said of Edwardsville’s sizzling start to the second half. “It was a four-point game, and it ballooned to 11, and then we’re chasing for the rest of the game. That’s not a basketball game that we like to play. It’s tough when you dig a hole against Edwardsville like that.”
O’Fallon played with pluck in the first half, twice building five-point leads in the second quarter. But Edwardsville went ahead to stay at 27-26 on a basket in the lane by 6-7 junior Caleb Strohmeier, who finished with nine points.
In the third quarter, Smith began the onslaught with a 3-pointer, one of his three in the game. Junior Jack Marinko, Kolesa and Smith followed with baskets, and suddenly Edwardsville’s advantage was 43-30 with 5:35 left in the period.
O’Fallon got a basket from Fulton to make it 43-32, but the Tigers answered with an 8-0 run that made it 51-32 at the 2:01 mark. Stephen’s 3-pointer was followed by Smith’s 3-point play and rebound basket.
“As the game went on, we adjusted to their quickness a little better,” Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo said. “Their speed was hard to deal with, but I think we got adjusted to it more as the game went on. But they’re a good team.”
Smith, who is being recruited heavily by Illinois, is on the best scoring stretch of his career with 125 points in the last four games. But the 6-4 point guard doesn’t look at it that way.
“I don’t really pay attention,” he said. “I’m just out there playing my game. I’m trying to be a competitor and help my team win the game. That’s what we’re all here trying to do. It’s a great feeling to keep winning like we are right now.”
By the numbers
O’Fallon’s quickness forced Edwardsville into 17 turnovers, a high for the Tigers. The Panthers committed just nine turnovers and shot 46 percent from the field (26 for 57).
Edwardsville shot 54 percent (27 for 50). The Tigers made eight 3-pointers.