For the first time in three years, the Belleville East Lancers take to the basketball court without Javon Pickett and Rico Sylvester, who have moved on to the rest of their playing careers and taken their combined 40 points per game with them.
But even without a go-to guy, first-year coach Jeff Creek is making do. With a 56-43 win over Chicago Julian at the Centralia Thanksgiving Tournament on Saturday, the Lancers are 3-1.
Four different players have scored in double figures, three of which have posted the game high.
It’s a whole new ballgame at East.
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“It’s not any more of, ‘Get the ball to this guy because he can create his own shot.’ We have a couple of kids who can kind of do that, but we have to play as a team because we just don’t have that one guy,” said Creek, who was hired in April to replace former coach Abel Schrader. “We have to play as one unit.”
The win over Julian provided a solid example of the kind of game the Lancers want to play as they begin Southwestern Conference play next Saturday.
East shot just 30 percent from the field, but outrebounded Julian by a wide margin, pulling down 43 total boards and 17 on the offensive end.
Smothering defense held Julian to just four first-quarter points and seven field goals in the first half, helping the Lancers to take an important early lead. Four East players accounted for five steals and the Lancers forced 10 Julian turnovers.
And though they went cold at the free throw line in the third quarter as the game got tight, the Lancers finished 21 of 28, including their last eight in a row.
“The key, though, is defensive stops,” Creek said. “If we don’t get the stops and don’t get the rebounds, then free throws don’t matter. I was just happy with the rebounds ...
“The effort was leaps and bounds better than it’s been the first three games. They played hard and it’s the best we’ve rebounded so far.”
Belleville East took a 17-4 lead in the first quarter on a pair of 3-pointers by Kienen Waller and Isaiah May. Julian was able to narrow the gap to three points in the second quarter and went into halftime down just six.
Still, Creek said the Jaguars’ second-quarter adjustments played in the Lancers’ game plan. Julian expanded its zone defense to spread the East shooters and forced a halfcourt tempo Creek prefers.
“We’re not going to score a lot of points, so if a team wants to slow it down a little bit, we’ll slow it down and run our offense,” he said. “We’ll take the fast break when we get our opportunity, but other than that, we have to run good offense.
“I thought they did a good job looking for the pass first rather than dribbling first.”
Senior Jordan Yates took his turn as East’s top scorer, posting 14 points to go with his game-high 15 rebounds and four assists. May, Waller and Jaylen Lacey each had nine points. Riley Barnes, Jarded Adams, Alex Smith and Malik Williams also scored for the Lancers.
“A lot people think we’re not going to do a lot this year, but we’ve got to prove to everybody what we can do, play good defense and just keep going,” said Yates, who averaged 7.7 points as a junior. “But you can’t pass the ball to just one person now. We have to go 14 deep if we can. Everybody has to step up and do what they do to contribute.”
Julian’s Antoine Bloxton was the game’s high scorer with 18 points, while Andre Cunningham added a double-double with 12 points with 14 rebounds.
By defeating East on Wednesday, Centralia clinched the championship of the round-robin tournament.