Belleville West celebrates first state title win
Peoria proved to be the Belleville West Maroons' kind of town.
Junior Lawrence Brazil III had a steal and a layup in the final five seconds of overtime Saturday night to clinch the Maroons' heart-stopping 60-56 victory over Whitney Young in the championship game of the Class 4A state tournament at Carver Arena.
It's the first state title for the Maroons (32-2), who placed third in 1966.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of my team," 14th-year West coach Joe Muniz said as he sat at the podium with all his players and assistant coaches surrounding him. "We battled back from adversity. It's been a long time since we've been in a tough game like this. Our guys just showed the heart of a lion. They had this one common goal."
Junior EJ Liddell, who scored 17 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked seven shots, was almost speechless. The 6-foot-7 Liddell on Friday became the career scoring leader at West, then became the single-season scoring leader Saturday.
"I'm so excited," he said. "I'm really out of words right now, honestly. I'm just so excited."
Senior Malachi Smith then took a turn trying to describe his exhilaration.
"It's good knowing that we're state champions when no one believed in us," said Smith, a transfer from Belleville East who had eight points, nine rebounds and four assists. "From day one, we always told each other if we put the work in, this was going to happen. For this type of thing to happen, it takes a team to believe in it. We made everyone believe. Now we're state champions."
Brazil led the Maroons with 18 points and four steals, none bigger than his last one.
After Smith made a free throw to put the Maroons ahead 58-56 with 8.7 seconds to play, Brazil took the ball from senior Xavier Castaneda and rushed uncontested to the rim for the easy layup. Time then expired, setting off a wild celebration by the Maroons and a large contingent of fans who made the 170-mile trip from Belleville.
"He's done that so many times it's not even funny," Muniz said of Brazil's sneaky steal. "When people thought they had a lane on him, he would sneak up from behind and steal the ball. He's done that numerous times."
The Maroons nearly won in regulation.
With the game tied at 50, Liddell missed an open 3-pointer from the left wing. The ball caromed off the rim and went out of bounds with 1.1 seconds left.
One of the officials went to the scorer's table, and the public-address announcer warned fans about using artificial noise-makers. The Maroons gained possession on a jump ball and inbounded a lob to Liddell, who missed a short jumper in the lane as time expired.
The Maroons took a 55-50 lead in overtime on a rebound basket by Liddell and three free throws by Brazil.
But Castaneda scored to make it 55-52, a shot answered by Smith's two free throws that made it 57-52 with 1:12 left.
Castaneda made two free throws, and senior Javon Freeman followed with a steal and a layup that cut West's lead to 57-56 with 1:03 remaining. Freeman then fouled Maroons junior Keith Randolph Jr., who missed two free throws with 39.3 seconds left.
But Castaneda traveled with 21.4 seconds to go, setting up Smith's free throw and the ensuing huge play by Brazil.
"We played a very good Belleville team tonight," said Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter, whose team was the defending champion in Class 4A. "We had a couple of opportunities to win the game; we just didn't get it done. They made some plays when they needed to. They made some free throws down the stretch. At the end of the day, I think the team that was most deserving of the win got the win tonight.
"If you look at our team, I think that might have been our third or fourth overtime game of the playoffs. The glass slipper broke tonight. That's the chance you take when you don't secure the game in regulation or overtime."
Freeman led the Dolphins with 17 points, while Castaneda had 14.
West overcame 30-percent shooting from the field (15 of 50) and went 27 of 38 from the free-throw line. It was the first time this season that the Maroons were held under 62 points.
Whitney Young shot 42 percent (21 of 50). Both teams had 21 turnovers.
"That's a very, very good Whitney Young team," Muniz said. "They were state champs last year and had three guys returning. Three good guys. We did a great job guarding them from the second quarter on."
Liddell stayed effective despite picking up his fourth foul with 3:39 left in the fourth quarter. Liddell and Brazil played all 36 minutes, with Randolph and Smith playing 34 and senior Curtis Williams playing 33.
West outrebounded the Dolphins 40-33, with 20 of its rebounds coming on the offensive end. They helped the Maroons outscore Whitney Young 19-8 on second chances.
The game had nine lead changes and 13 ties.
Liddell finished the season with 708 points, surpassing the former record of 703 points set by Joe Wiley in 1965-66. Liddell will enter his senior season with 1,759 points.
Brazil and Randolph will join Liddell as returning starters next season.
Things went poorly for West to open the game.
Whitney Young led 17-10 after the first quarter, then scored the first six points of the second quarter to lead 23-10. An aggressive 2-3 zone confounded the Maroons, who quickly realized they were in for a battle after a postseason of lopsided victories.
But West, sparked by 3-pointers from Smith and Brazil, quickly climbed back into contention. The Maroons closed the second quarter with a 16-1 run over the final 5:03 that produced a 26-24 lead at the intermission.
After the Dolphins took their 13-point lead on a short jumper by sophomore Sangolay Njie, they went the final 5:19 without a basket. Their only point during that stretch was a free throw by Castaneda.
Williams' layup with 54 seconds to play gave West its 26-24 advantage. The play began when Liddell blocked a shot by junior Myles Baker after Baker made a dazzling crossover dribble in the lane.
Liddell had seven points and four blocks at halftime.