Boys Basketball

Belleville West expects tough battle against West Aurora

Belleville West junior EJ Liddell has led the Maroons to a 29 wins and the No. 2 rank in the Illinois class 4A high school basketball poll.
Belleville West junior EJ Liddell has led the Maroons to a 29 wins and the No. 2 rank in the Illinois class 4A high school basketball poll. Jimmy Simmons

The margin for error is expected to be razor-thin when the Belleville West Maroons meet the West Aurora Blackhawks in the Class 4A Normal Super-Sectional at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Redbird Arena.

The teams have combined to win their last 29 games, with West Aurora taking down 17 opponents in a row.

"The guys are locked in and focused," said Blackhawks coach Brian Johnson, whose team is 25-4. "We're playing well, we're playing hard and we're playing together. It's been nice to watch them as they've developed throughout the year and come together as one."

West Aurora, which outscored Bolingbrook 82-67 on Friday in the championship game of the Romeoville Sectional, hasn't tasted defeat since a 78-76 decision against Bloomington on Dec. 30.

Johnson would feel more confident about extending the streak if the Blackhawks weren't facing the Maroons (29-2), whose most recent loss came 81-77 in overtime against St. Louis power Chaminade on Jan. 20 in the title game of the Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East. During its 12-game streak, West has outscored teams by an average of more than 27 points.

The Maroons earned their first sectional championship since 2003 on Friday when they pulled away in the second half to overwhelm Moline 67-47 in the Pekin Sectional finale. That year, West reached the state tournament and lost to Evanston in the quarterfinals.

Coach Joe Muniz said the Blackhawks represent a "formidable" roadblock as his Maroons try to return to the promised land.

"The bottom line is when you get this far in the (postseason), your opponents are all very good," Muniz said. "I expect this to be an outstanding game. I know our guys will be ready for it and I'm sure their guys will be ready for it.

"They played awfully well to beat a good Bolingbrook team Friday night. I think we keep improving, too. You've got two teams on a collision course. They're going to play (Tuesday) night and have a great game."

West junior EJ Liddell most concerns Johnson. The 6-foot-7 junior, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, averages 20.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.9 blocks. Liddell ranks third on the Maroons' career scoring list with 1,692 points.

"They're ridiculously good," Johnson said. "Obviously, it revolves first around Liddell and all the amazing attributes he has. Besides being extremely athletic and physical, he's very skilled. He can beat you outside, he can beat you inside, he can beat you driving to the bucket, he can beat you at the free-throw line. Then he just alters the game on the defensive end of the floor, which allows them to be more aggressive with their guards in the passing lanes and on the ball because he's cleaning everything up at the rim."

The Maroons were all smiles as they posed for pictures Friday after their sectional championship game win over Moline.

Johnson also marvels at 6-3 senior Malachi Smith (15.8 points, 6.1 rebounds), a Wright State recruit, 6-5 junior Keith Randolph Jr. (9.7 points, 6.6 rebounds) and 5-11 point guard Lawrence Brazil III (10.5 points, 49 3-pointers). Senior Curtis Williams is the other starter.

"Smith is a very good, athletic guard that can shoot the 3," Johnson said. "He can (score) off the dribble, get to the basket. He attacks the offensive glass. Randolph is just massive. He's a great offensive rebounder; he's physical and strong. Him and Liddell work great off each other. (Brazil) is quick, athletic. It seems like he's fearless from the arc. He looks like a leader as well out there."

West's Aurora's leading scorer is 6-3 senior shooting guard Camron Donatlan, who averages 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Donatlan is a running back in football who has signed with Wyoming. In track and field, he has a 7-foot high jump.

"He's a phenomenal athlete," Muniz said. "He guards everybody's best player. He does (many) things in the open floor. He's just an unbelievable talent athletically. He doesn't shoot it real well, but he makes up for it with offensive rebounds and getting to the rim. He makes some plays happen just with his pure athleticism."

Jared Crutcher, a 6-5 senior, averages 14 points, 8.5 rebounds and three blocks. He had 26 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks against Bolingbrook, going 12 of 14 from the field. Damian Virgen, a 6-0 senior, averages 13 points, while Traevon Brown, a 6-0 junior point guard, averages just over 10 points. Ben Young, a 6-4 senior, completes the lineup.

"It starts with Camron Donatlan and Jared Crutcher," Johnson said. "But we have multiple guys that have stepped up, especially when we've had some foul trouble the last couple of games. Damian Virgen has been a huge leader for us as well as Ben Young. And Trae Brown has found his rhythm as well."

Muniz said West Aurora reminds him somewhat of Chaminade.

"They're not particularly huge, but they're long," Muniz said. "I'm not saying they're as good as Chaminade, but those (players) remind me a lot of Chaminade with their athleticism. This is going to be a very good, athletic team that we're playing."

Crutcher is West Aurora's version of Liddell.

"He looks like a great shot-blocker," Muniz said. "He can jump out of the gym. He's not as strong as EJ and doesn't have the complete game EJ has, (but) as he goes, they go. The one thing we're going to have to do is keep him from getting shots around the basket and getting offensive rebounds because he's really good in those areas. He runs the floor well and gets a lot of points in transition."

West and Moline were tied at 20 on Friday, but Liddell and Brazil each hit a 3-pointer in the last 48 seconds of the second quarter, and the Maroons then went on a 19-2 run to start the third quarter as they stretched their lead to 45-22.

"I feel like they do that to a lot of teams," Johnson said. "It's all of a sudden. It's like a (Mike) Tyson uppercut. You're feeling good and then all of a sudden, they go on a 20-2 run and you're like, 'Oh, that happened so quickly.'"

Both teams are adept on the run or in the halfcourt.

"We both like to play fast, but we can both play in the halfcourt set as well," Johnson said. "Especially of late, we've done a good job keeping our composure down the stretch. We might make a few mistakes, but then we're able to not let that fall into a big downward slope. It's been nice being able to control the tempo at times and make good decisions in the halfcourt set."

To defeat West, Johnson said the Blackhawks will need "all hands on deck."

"You can't just rely on Camron to take over a game and score 40 points," Johnson said. "It takes everybody to take down such an amazing team and a well-coached team. It's going to be fun on a college floor. Hopefully, it's a fast and quick game. Hopefully, it's a competitive one as well. We're excited to go against the best."

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