One up-and-coming player and another already firmly established figured prominently in Edwardsville’s Southwestern Conference game against O’Fallon on Tuesday.
Edwardsville sophomore A.J. Epenesa had 23 points and 10 rebounds while Panthers senior Donovan Franklin was limited to 10 points by a smothering box-and-one defense that sparked the Tigers to a 52-49 victory.
The victory avenged Edwardsville’s 58-40 loss to the Panthers on Jan. 9 in Edwardsville.
“It was a good win because they beat us last time by a pretty high amount,” said the muscular 6-foot-5 Epenesa, who was 8-for-9 from the field and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line. “Coming back and beating them was a good thing to happen tonight, so it felt good.”
Senior Kyler Davis added nine points, seven in the fourth quarter, as the Tigers (16-10, 7-6 SWC) held off a determined O’Fallon rally in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Oliver Stephen had eight points and senior Jordan Harris had seven points and seven rebounds.
The Tigers committed 18 turnovers, 11 in the second half, but kept O’Fallon at arm’s length by going 11-for-12 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.
“Jordan Harris and Kendall Edmond did an excellent job against No. 3 (Franklin),” Tigers coach Mike Waldo said. “They played hard against him and did a good job against him (in the box-and-one). You’ve got to credit their effort in that regard, and I thought that helped us. And the other four guys did a good job not giving the rest of them open shots.
“We played one of our best games of the season tonight, and we had to do that. O’Fallon’s an excellent team.”
O’Fallon’s pressure defense in the fourth quarter rattled the Tigers, who had a 47-39 lead with 1:20 to play after Stephen made two free throws.
Armstrong followed with a layp to make it 47-41, but Epensesa answered at the other end to make it 49-41. Senior Caleb Wegner then popped a 3-pointer from the left corner to get the Panthers within 49-44 with 59 seconds to play.
An Edwardsville turnover led to a dunk by Franklin that cut the Tigers’ lead to 49-46 with 32 seconds remaining.
Senior Dan Marinko sank two clutch free throws to build the Edwardsville lead back to five at 51-46 with 19.5 seconds left, but sophomore Alex Orr connected from beyond the arc, and suddenly O’Fallon (17-9, 9-4) was within 51-49 with 15 seconds left.
Davis made the first of two free throws at the 12.1-second mark, giving the Panthers a final desperate possession. But senior Darien McClain’s 3-pointer was off the mark at the horn.
“They played well,” O’Fallon coach Rick Gibson said of the Tigers. “They made free throws, they controlled the tempo of the game and they always stayed on top.”
Gibson was disappointed in the Panthers’ rebounding. Edwardsville held a 21-14 advantage on the boards, with Franklin corralling just five in addition to his atypical game on offense.
Without Franklin getting one of his patented double-doubles, the Panthers didn’t have the necessary punch. Orr finished with 10 points and Armstrong had nine, but that wasn’t enough.
“(Franklin) was working,” Gibson. “We had some chances with some other kids who had open looks, and they weren’t knocking them down until late. They were giving a lot of guys open looks except for Donny. He didn’t score much, but he didn’t rebound much, either.”
Epenesa, meanwhile, went to work in the low blocks against 6-9 senior Nathan Cokenour and 6-4 senior Parker Roustio. Neither had much of a chance.
“The whole conference, everybody has been coming out with these bigger guys,” Epenesa said. “I just try to do what I practice and try to use the correct technique. If you have good technique, everything will go your way.”
Waldo credited Epenesa, who also had a runout basket in the fourth quarter.
“A.J. had an excellent game, handling the ball and also scoring under the basket and making the right plays,” Waldo said. “Our guys did a good job getting him the ball. Low-post play is hard. It’s one of the hardest things in sports, and A.J. has done a good job trying to get better each day - making the right play, the right pass, the right read.”
The Tigers, who trailed 12-8 after one quarter but led 23-21 at halftime, shot 61 percent from the field (17-for-28) and were 16-for-20 from the line. O’Fallon connected on 41 percent of its shots from the field (20-for-49) and was 3-for-4 on free throws.
“At this point in the year, every loss is tough,” said Gibson, whose team fell Friday at East St. Louis and will close the season Friday at Alton. “You’re wanting to play your best basketball right now as you head into postseason. We ran into a tough East Side team and ran into an Edwardsville team that played well and controlled the game. It doesn’t get any easier going to Alton. That’s not going to be a joyride, either.”