East St. Louis had high hopes heading into their game Friday against Belleville West.
But the Maroons quashed those aspirations with a dominant first half that poured the foundation for a 73-54 victory in a Southwestern Conference game.
“I thought we started out real well, and then I thought we relaxed a little bit and lost our focus,” West coach Joe Muniz said. “We’ve got to do a better job with that.
“We won by 19, and it’s a great win down here, but we did not play well. We didn’t play our best game. We missed a lot of free throws, turned the ball over. It was a weird flow to the game. ... We’ve got a lot of room for improvement.”
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The Maroons were just 22 of 31 from the free-throw line and had 14 turnovers, including seven in the fourth quarter.
But the victory gave West (21-2, 10-0) a 2 1/2-game lead over Alton in the conference standings. The Maroons have four games remaining, all at home; Alton has three.
Senior Malachi Smith led all scorers with 19 points for West. Junior EJ Liddell had 18 points, junior Lawrence Brazil III had 14 and junior Keith Randolph Jr. had nine. Senior Curtis Williams added eight points as Maroons starters accounted for all but five points.
“It feels good,” Smith said of taking another step toward the league title. “All of our hard work is paying off. Coach says take it one day and one game at a time. We’re just one step closer to our goal. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, so we’re going to keep pushing.”
The postgame mood was glum for East St. Louis (10-10, 5-6). The Flyers trailed 40-17 at halftime, and junior star Terrence Hargrove Jr. took out his frustrations on a ping-pong table outside of the locker room. Other players were equally upset.
“That’s not me,” Hargrove said of the rare outburst of emotion. “I was just a little frustrated about the game because this game means to much to me. It’s kind of like bragging rights. But that wasn’t me. It was all out of frustration. You’ll never see that from me again.”
Hargrove said the Flyers “came out flat in the first quarter.”
“We didn’t stick to our game plan like we were supposed to,” he said. “By the time we tried to come back, it was too late. We started off too flat and gave them too big of a lead.”
Hargrove topped East St. Louis with 15 points. Junior Cornelius Leflore scored 11 points, all of them in the second half, and made two 3-pointers to spark a modest fourth-quarter comeback. But the Flyers were only able to close within 57-44.
“We came out a little slow,” said Flyers coach Mark Chambers said, whose club trailed 23-8 after one quarter. “They attacked us and we didn’t completely stick to the game plan. That’s part of the process. I’ve only been here for a month and I’m still trying to get these guys to understand and really play in big-game situations.”
East Side outscored West 37-33 in the second half, which meant something to Chambers.
“We fought. We didn’t give up,” he said. “I’m taking the positive from this game. That’s what we’ve been preaching the whole time I’ve been here — positivity.”
Sophomore Jashawn Anderson had eight points for East Side, while senior Joe Reece had seven before fouling out with 11.1 seconds left in the third quarter. Reece had picked up his fourth foul moments earlier, then was called for his fifth as he went for a steal.
It was that kind of night for East St. Louis.
“It’s Feb. 9. We’re playing for March 9,” Chambers said. “We’re going to have some bumps in the road, and this is one. But we’re going to get back in the gym and get better.”