Boys Basketball

Edwardsville boys beat Alton, advance to sectional play

Edwardsville junior Jack Marinko drains 60-foot buzzer-beater

The Edwardsville IL High School Tigers boys basketball team defeated the Alton IL High School Redbirds 66-53 in the title game of the IHSA Class 4A Granite City Regional. Here, Edwardsville junior Jack Marinko drains a 60-foot buzzer-beater to end
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The Edwardsville IL High School Tigers boys basketball team defeated the Alton IL High School Redbirds 66-53 in the title game of the IHSA Class 4A Granite City Regional. Here, Edwardsville junior Jack Marinko drains a 60-foot buzzer-beater to end

The Edwardsville Tigers vanquished the Alton Redbirds in a 66-53 victory Friday night in the title game of the Class 4A Granite City Regional.

Alton had ended the Tigers dreams in each of the previous two seasons.

The Tigers (28-1), who are the state’s No. 1 team in Class 4A and ranked 25th nationally by USA Today and MaxPreps, survived a barrage of first-half 3-pointers by the Redbirds and a foul-plagued night by star guard Mark Smith to advance to the Ottawa sectional semifinal against Belleville West.

The Maroons are the only team to defeat the Tigers this season, a 59-53 outcome in the SWC at the E Shootout on Dec. 3. West advanced to the sectional with a 67-60 win over East St. Louis at the Belleville East regional. Edwardsville will take a 24-game win streak into that game at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Collinsville High School.

“It makes it a little bit better (beating Alton), because you came into it with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder,” said Edwardsville senior center AJ Epenesa, whose 18 first-half points helped the Tigers build a 34-27 halftime lead. “They came out and played their hearts out. I just feel like we wanted it a little bit more because it’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time.”

Alton drained eight of its 14 first-half 3-point attempts to keep the Tigers close.

But the Redbirds managed just a single trey in the opening 13:25 of the second half, during which Edwardsville opened up a 55-40 lead.

“They were really hard to guard tonight,” said Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo, who won his 21st regional title as coach of the Tigers. “And the way they were hitting 3s is hard to defend. But I thought our guys did a good job defending the basket throughout, and in the second half, they finally started missing some shots.”

Back-to-back 3s from Donovan Clay did make it 55-46 at the 2:18 mark, but Smith responded with a 3 at the other end, and the Edwardsville lead didn’t slip below double digits again.

“That was kind of fool’s gold, a little bit, because chances are you are not going to continue to shoot like that for two halves,” said Alton coach Eric Smith, whose team bows out at 16-12. “We talked about getting to the rim more in the second half, and we didn’t do a very good job of that.”

Key sequence

With Alton down by just three, junior Jack Marinko grabbed a defensive rebound in the final seconds of the first quarter, whirled and took a few quick steps before knocking down a 60-footer that put the Tigers up 22-16.

“I just saw it come out, so I grabbed it and put it up,” said Marinko, who finished with nine points and handled more of the ball-handling duties while Smith was out with foul trouble. “It felt great.”

Later, with the Redbirds still hanging around, Marinko hit a layup in quick transition as time ran out in the third quarter to give Edwardsville a double-digit edge entering the fourth period.

Key performers

Virtually unstoppable inside, the 6-foot-5 Epenesa finished the night with a game-high 24 points and nine rebounds.

Despite foul trouble limiting his playing time, Smith still managed 14 points, half of them coming in the fourth quarter. Caleb Strohmeier had 12 points for the Tigers.

Clay drained four 3-pointers to account for all 12 of his points to top Alton. Damien Reid and Ty’ohn Trimble had 11 and 10 points, respectively, for the Redbirds.

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