Belleville West had two worthy opponents Friday and overcame both of them.
West battled through foul trouble on star junior EJ Liddell and navigated through the occasional rough waters in his absence to defeat Champaign Central 70-56 in the semifinals of the Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East.
It was the 14th consecutive victory for West (17-1), which advanced to the championship game and a date with St. Louis power Chaminade (13-2) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I haven’t been in that much foul trouble this year,” said the 6-foot-7 Liddell, excepting the championship game of the Washington Tournament on Nov. 25 against Sam Houston Math and Science. “If I’m in foul trouble, there’s nothing else I can do but just cheer my team on and try to encourage them to keep playing as hard without me.
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“I had to be smart about it. I tried not to jump on some things. I tried to stay in the game and help my team out. My team needs me and I need them to win. But when I went out, everybody else stepped up and did their thing.”
Liddell was charged with his second foul with 5:35 left in the second quarter and exited the game for two minutes. He picked up his third with 6:16 to play in the third quarter, then was whistled for his fourth foul with 46.6 seconds remaining in the third.
Liddell finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, but got a load of support from senior Malachi Smith (21 points, 12 rebounds) and junior Keith Randolph Jr. (14 points).
“I really thought we handled that situation well,” West coach Joe Muniz said of the on-and-off availability of Liddell. “They cut the lead to (seven) at one point, but we were able to build it back up to 17, 18. Malachi and Keith Randolph had huge games for us.”
Junior Jaylin Mosby, meanwhile, had nine points on three 3-pointers, two of them coming in a 25-second span late in the first quarter after Central (10-6) went to a 2-3 zone.
“That was effective against us at Centralia,” Muniz said of Central’s 2-3 zone in the championship game of the Centralia Holiday Tournament on Dec. 30, which West won 62-61. “But we practiced against it. We knew what they were going to try to do. They know what we were going to try to do. The big thing is our kids were better at attacking the zone than they were down at Centralia.”
West built a 32-11 lead on junior Marcellus Romious’ 3-pointer from the left corner with 5:17 left in the second quarter. Central closed the half with an 8-2 to run to get within 38-27.
West built a 53-40 lead on Liddell’s basket with 1:04 to play in the third quarter. Central whittled its deficit to 53-46 on a three-point play by freshman Khailieo Terry with 7:47 remaining in the game, but was unable to get closer.
“West is obviously a very good team. They made shots, we didn’t,” said Central coach Jeff Finke, whose team was 23 of 69 from the field (33 percent). “We were down 32-11. We not only didn’t make 3s, which we’re accustomed to making. But we didn’t finish at the rim, either. It was a tough offensive game. ... We dug ourselves a hole and they took it to us.”
Finke’s son, Tim, a 6-7 senior, led Central with 24 points on 10 of 27 shooting and collected 13 rebounds. Terry finished with 17 points. West outrebounded Central 38-28.
Central will play St. Mary’s for third place at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Chaminade will be perhaps the best team West has faced this season, although the Maroons have been no stranger to tough competition.
“They’re good,” Muniz said of the Red Devils. “They’re well-coached; they’ve got good players. This is what we need. Not because we want to take down Chaminade ... but when you play against good teams, it’s going to make you better — win or lose. Our kids are excited; I know their kids are excited. It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
West was 27 of 58 from the field (46 percent).
Chaminade 97, St. Mary’s 77
Senior Jericole Hellems scored 30 points to lead the Red Devils to their semifinal win over the Dragons. Hellems was 11 of 16 from the field and also had eight rebounds and five assists.
Sophomore Luke Kasubke had 18 points, senior Henry Gladson had 13, junior Keyyaun Batchman had 11 and senior Jadis White had 10.