Belleville West reaches state boys basketball tournament
The competition is supposed to be getting tougher for Belleville West. Instead, the Maroons continue to shred it.
Junior EJ Liddell had 26 points and 13 rebounds and three other teammates scored in double figures Tuesday as the Maroons dismantled West Aurora 81-43 in the Class 4A Normal Super-Sectional at Redbird Arena.
The Maroons' victory, their most lopsided of the postseason, clinched their first berth in the final four since the 1965-66 team placed third. West (30-2) will play Elgin Larkin (22-8) in the semifinals of the state tournament at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Carver Arena in Peoria.
West coach Joe Muniz fought back tears as he considered the reality of the Maroons' accomplishment.
"It's been talked about all year long. It's pretty special," said Muniz, his voice cracking. "It's been 14 hard years, and I'm pretty proud.
"We've got two more (games). We've got to go do it."
It will be West's first trip to state since the 2002-03 season, which was before the four-class system was introduced. That year, the Maroons were defeated by Evanston 58-50 in the quarterfinals. It was Bill Schmidt's next-to-last year as coach; Muniz took over for the 2004-05 season.
Senior Malachi Smith had 14 points and nine rebounds, junior Lawrence Brazil III had 13 points and junior Keith Randolph Jr. had 10 points and 10 rebounds as West won its 13th in a row. West Aurora (25-5) saw its 17-game winning streak come to a screeching halt.
The Maroons shot 50 percent from the field (29 of 58) and limited West Aurora to 27 percent (16 of 59).
"We want to beat a team by as much as possible," said the 6-foot-7 Liddell, who in the third quarter became the second-leading scorer in Maroons history, surpassing Mel Patton. "Us playing together as a team, not being selfish, that's how we're going to keep beating teams. We've got two more games to go, so that's our goal."
West outrebounded the Blackhawks 31-11 in the first half and 53-25 in the game. The Maroons outscored West Aurora by a whopping 56-14 in the paint, which helped lead to 22 second-chance points.
West never trailed, taking an 18-10 after the first quarter, 37-17 at halftime and 51-29 after the third quarter when Randolph beat the buzzer with a spin move in the lane. Aurora West never scored more than five consecutive points, and those came late in the game.
"They came out right away, and if they weren't making it, they were rebounding it and putting it back in," West Aurora coach Brian Johnson said. "They were physical and a lot of times overpowered us on the glass. They showed why they're one of the top teams in the state and one of the top teams in the nation."
Johnson said Liddell, who was 6 of 10 from the field and 13 of 14 from the free-throw line, was every bit as talented as he believed. Illinois coach Brad Underwood and Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who were in the crowd, also had to be impressed.
"Liddell makes his living on the glass and blocking shots, but he opens up with a 3," Johnson said of a top-of-the-key trey Liddell made that put West ahead 5-0 less than one minute into the game. "He gets his own rebounds, he gets everybody else's rebounds. We have rebounds we think we have, and he just takes them. It's an amazing mix they have, and they're so young, too."
Senior Camron Donatlan led Aurora West with 22 points and seven rebounds. Senior Jared Crutcher, who had 26 points and 14 rebounds in the Blackhawks' 82-67 victory over Bolingbrook in the sectional-title game at Romeoville, was held to two points.
"It's called Keith Randolph and EJ Liddell," Muniz said. "Those two guys can take anybody out of a game."
Liddell smiled when asked about becoming the school's second-leading scorer. He has 1,718 points, just eight behind all-time leader Milton Wiley (1,726).
"It means a lot. I've got to go out and get first place now," Liddell said. "I've got two more games. It would mean a lot to beat Milton Wiley. He was a great player at our school."
Muniz senses the Maroons are ready for more.
"This group is special," he said. "They're not afraid of the big stage. We prepared them for this because of the schedule we've played. The bigger the game, the better they play. And No. 32 (Liddell) always rises to the occasion in big games. He's so smooth. The stage is never too big for him.
"We still haven't played our best game. I keep telling them that. We're striving to get better and better every night. The one thing about this group is they haven't quit practicing. They still get after it, and that's why we've gotten better as the season's gone on. And in the postseason, we've taken it to a whole other level."