The smallest man on the court Friday turned in the biggest performance.
O’Fallon senior Darien McClain, who is perhaps generously listed as being 5-foot-11, scored a career-high 33 points to lead the Panthers past Belleville West 72-54.
McClain was 9-for-16 from the field, including 7-for-10 on 3-pointers. He made six 3s on seven attempts in a 26-point first half.
“I hit the first one and everybody said, ‘Keep shooting it. Keep shooting it,’” McClain said. “They kept finding me and my teammates kept setting picks to get me open shots. Sometimes the ball is like a magnet. Every time I shoot it, it feels like it’s going in.”
McClain even banked in one of his 3-pointers in the first half, helping the Panthers build a 38-22 lead at the break. O’Fallon was in control the remainder of the game despite seeing its lead trimmed to 12 on two occasions in the second half.
The Panthers, who got 12 second-half points from junior Chance Armstrong and 10 points from senior Donovan Franklin, improved to 15-6 overall and 7-2 in the Southwestern Conference. The Maroons (7-13, 2-8) got 25 points from 6-6 sophomore Tyler Dancy and eight points and 10 rebounds from 6-9 senior Will Presson.
West employed several players to try to contain McClain, who did the bulk of his damage from the top of the key. Senior Demond White guarded McClain for most of the second half, limiting him to seven points. But Armstrong, Franklin and senior Parker Roustio combined for 27 points as the Panthers kept the Maroons at arm’s length.
O’Fallon coach Rick Gibson has seen McClain get hot, but not quite to this extent.
“It was big,” Gibson said. “He played well We needed that. We had Donny sitting on the bench in foul trouble and we had Nathan (Cokenour) sitting on the bench in foul trouble. So it was good to see (McClain) step up and carry us in that first half. We needed somebody to do that, and he did it.”
McClain doesn’t need much wiggle room to release his shot, and he certainly wasn’t hesitant to show his wares.
“That’s the way he is. Once he makes one, he’s going to make a lot in a row,” Gibson said. “He did that. He was feeling it and stepped up and made a lot of shots. He was even banking them in.”
West helped dig its first-half hole by committing 13 of their 16 turnovers.
“Like good teams and good players do, McClain stepped up and hit a bunch of big shots,” Maroons coach Joe Muniz said. “We turned the ball over way too much. And the thing is, our turnovers weren't because of their defense. They weren’t forced.
“We didn't play very well. I was disappointed in how we played. We didn't play really tough and we did not play inspired. Things we didn't want them to do, we allowed them to do.”
Both teams sputtered out of the gate, combining to miss their first 11 shots. West finally scored on two free throws by Presson at the 4:29 mark of the first quarter before McClain popped his first 3-pointer just eight seconds later.
The Panthers led 18-9 after the first quarter and 38-20 when McClain scored on a runner with seven seconds to play in the half. Presson responded with a buzzer-beating dunk when he got behind O’Fallon’s defense, making it a 16-point game at the intermission.
O’Fallon, which was charged with 12 turnovers, shot 48 percent (26-for-54). The Panthers were 13-for-18 from the free-throw line, with McClain going 6-for-6.
Armstrong, who was 0-for-5 from the field in a scoreless first half, was 6-for-8 in the second half to keep the Panthers out of trouble.
“He was kind of struggling in the first half, but his defense was solid,” Gibson said. “He did a good job on (Eugene) Jones, taking him away.”
Jones, West’s leading scorer, finished with just seven points. The Maroons shot 37 percent (18-for-49) and were guilty of several missed layups.