EJ Liddell gets 3 blocks in 2 possessions in win over Elgin Larkin
Belleville West followed its familiar pattern Friday. After all, why mess with success?
The Maroons, as in previous postseason games, turned a close contest into a convincing victory as they shook the Elgin Larkin Royals 64-53 in the semifinals of the Class 4A state tournament at Carver Arena.
West (31-2) opened the game with a 9-0 surge, then employed a 21-6 run over a nine-minute stretch in the second and third quarters to put itself in the driver's seat and send it to the title game against defending champion Whitney Young (28-7) at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.
It's the first time in school history that West will play for a state championship in basketball. The Maroons placed third in 1966.
"It's a great win. We didn't play our best game, but I thought we battled," said Maroons coach Joe Muniz, whose team's 26-23 advantage midway through the second quarter swelled to 47-29 with 2:42 to play in the third quarter. "(Larkin) battled and found a way to get it down to (seven). We just made clutch plays to prevail."
West junior EJ Liddell led all players with 24 points and became the Maroons' career scoring leader with 1,742 points, surpassing the late Milton Wiley (1,726). Liddell needs 13 points Saturday to become West's single-season scoring leader. He enters the championship game with 691 points, trailing only Joe Wiley, who had 703 points in 1965-66.
Liddell also set a Class 4A single-game state-tournament record with seven blocks against Larkin. The former record of four blocks, according to the Illinois High School Association, had been set many times.
Junior Keith Randolph Jr. recorded a double-double with 18 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, while senior Malachi Smith and junior Lawrence Brazil III had eight points apiece.
The Maroons were unfazed by the presence of 6-foot-10 senior Jalen Shaw, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Royals (24-9). Four of Liddell's blocks were against Shaw, who was the biggest player West has seen all season.
"He's a really good player. He's a tall guy," Liddell said. "He takes up a lot of space in the lane. But I play a lot of people like that in the EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) circuit. It was a good battle."
Liddell said he expected to be able to handle Shaw.
"I think I'm a great shot-blocker, so yeah," Liddell said.
Senior Anthony Lynch led Elgin Larkin with 16 points and added seven rebounds, Senior Pierre Black came off the bench and scored 15 points, including 12 in the second half as he powered a Royals' comeback attempt with four 3-pointers.
With Larkin students chanting, "It's not over," Black swished back-to-back 3-pointers 40 seconds apart to whittle the Maroons' lead to 60-53 with 1:35 to play. But West closed the door on Randolph's basket, a free throw by Randolph and a free throw by Liddell.
"They're a great team. That's my first thought," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said of the Maroons. "It was the first time I've seen them in person. That 9-0 run to start the game and the run in the second half put us up against the 8-ball. Against such a good team that has such a great, dominant presence (Liddell), it's hard to fight back all the way."
Shaw fouled out while going for a rebound with 4:08 to play. He grudgingly credited Liddell.
"In my opinion, it was like playing against any other big," Shaw said. "I wasn't scared of him. I wasn't going to back down just because he was second (-best junior) in the state."
Liddell had two 3-pointers and Brazil had one as West vaulted to a 9-0 lead in the first two minutes.
But the gap was just 17-13 after one quarter and 26-23 after a three-point play by Lynch with 4:03 left in the half.
Liddell missed a shot, but the rebound landed in the hands of senior Zion Woodie, who fed Liddell for a dunk to make it 28-23. That started a 9-3 push to close the second quarter, and the Maroons scored the first eight points of the third quarter to lead 43-26.
The highlight came when Liddell had consecutive blocks on the right side of the lane against Shaw and Lynch. The ball ended up in Randolph's hands, and Randolph made a court-long pass that led to Brazil's layup.
Muniz said the 6-5 Randolph's contributions are impossible to ignore — at both ends of the court. Randolph also spent time guarding Shaw to give the Royals a different look and to keep Liddell fresh for the long haul.
"It's hard enough trying to stop EJ," Muniz said. "(Teams) have to use all their size and strength to try to stop him. Then when you've got Keith down there, he's a load, too. He stepped up and made big plays all night. Keith had an unbelievable game."
West shot 51 percent (22 of 43) and had 13 assists against just 10 turnovers. Larkin shot 42 percent (21 of 50) with 15 turnovers.
"I thought if we guarded and rebounded, we would prevail," Muniz said. "I thought we would score enough points. We did enough, but No. 1 (Black) and No. 21 (Lynch) really played well. No. 1 is unconscious. It's amazing, the shots he made. They were tough shots."
West has scored at least 62 points in all 33 games this season, but like Muniz, Smith said the defense is key.
"We try to make sure we start with defense, because defense is what wins us games," Smith said. "With our constant pressure, (opponents) get tired as the game goes on."
Can the Maroons do it one more time? They're in position to make it happen.
"This is what you dream about," Muniz said. "It's what you work hard for.
"They've had this dream and that goal since the start of June. They've worked hard all season long. I couldn't be more proud of them."