Belleville West saw an opportunity and pounced on it Friday.
The Maroons, ranked third in the latest Class 4A state poll, capitalized on the departure of Alton’s best player, senior Kevin Caldwell, and cruised to a 65-40 victory in a Southwestern Conference game.
Caldwell, a 6-foot point guard who leads the Redbirds (9-4, 5-1) in scoring at 12.9 points per game, injured his left ankle with 6:13 to play in the second quarter and was carried off the floor.
West outscored Alton 18-7 in the remainder of the quarter to take a 36-19 lead at halftime. The Maroons (13-1, 6-0) were never threatened again.
“You hate to see a kid like Caldwell go down,” Maroons coach Joe Muniz said. “He’s a great player, but more importantly, he’s a great kid. All of our guys, they’re all friends (with Caldwell). It really bothered some of them just to see him hurt. That’s because they’re teammates in the summer, and we’ve got great respect for Alton. Hopefully, it’s only a short time and he’ll be back.”
The Maroons also defeated Alton 72-53 in the semifinals of the Centralia Holiday Tournament on Dec. 30.
Senior Malachi Smith picked up two first-quarter fouls for West but finished with a game-leading 19 points. Junior EJ Liddell had 10 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocked shots, while junior Lawrence Brazil III had nine points, all of them in the first half.
Alton was led by junior Malik Smith’s nine points.
Redbirds coach Eric Smith acknowledged that the loss of Caldwell was damaging to his team’s hope for victory, but he was disappointed other players didn’t pick up the slack.
“It’s what we’ve talked about before: We’ve got kids who can play,” Smith said. “The frustrating part was it just kind of took the wind out of our sails. He’s been a varsity kid for four years, and he played a little bit of JV his freshman year. They’ve played without him, and they’ve won a lot of games without him.
“The frustrating part was them just not having confidence without him, which kind of baffles me a little bit.”
Smith did not know the extent of Caldwell’s injury, but Caldwell was unable to put any type of pressure on the ankle after he crumbled to the floor following a West rebound.
“I play with Caldwell (in the summer),” Malachi Smith said. “I call him, ‘Hoppy.’ He’s on my team, so I know how he plays. He’s that spark that they needed to win. I felt bad for him, but I knew when he was out of the game that they were going to be a little down without him.”
The game was close early. The Maroons grabbed a 10-6 lead, but a 3-pointer and a free throw by Caldwell made it 10-10 with 55 seconds left in the first quarter.
Caldwell had six points, all in the opening period.
West got a 3-point play from Smith to make it 13-10 with 44 seconds left and never trailed again. The Maroons took charge with a 15-0 run that began when Caldwell was still in the game. The surge, fueled by six points from Smith and five from Brazil, made it 29-12.
“Malachi (Smith) and Lawrence Brazil really had a good first half to catapult us, and I thought our defense created a lot of turnovers and got us some easy buckets and some runouts,” Muniz said. “I was pleased that our other guys stepped up and scored like they did. ... I thought we were pretty unselfish getting it to the open man.”
The Maroons went ahead 45-25 in the third quarter, and many of the Alton fans began gathering their coats and heading for the exits. The gap grew to 58-32 on a basket by junior Jaylin Mosby with just less than four minutes left in the game.
“Our kids are going to have to find a way to compete,” said Eric Smith, whose team finished 15 of 57 from the field (26 percent), including 4 of 21 on 3-pointers (19 percent).