Belleville West advances to state title game
Tyrone Slaughter's early take on Saturday's Class 4A basketball championship game is that it will be the classic match of David versus Goliath.
But which team is which? His Whitney Young Dolphins or Joe Muniz's Belleville West Maroons?
"We'll tell the rest of the story tomorrow," Slaughter said.
It could be either. To a man, Belleville West is much bigger. The Maroons' front of EJ Liddell, Keith Randoph and Malachi Smith goes, respectively, 6-foot-7, 6-5 and 6-4. Whitney Young won't put a starter on the floor taller than 6-5.
But Whitney Young is the defending 4A champion, a feat it will try to replicate when Slaughter leads the Dolphins against Belleville West at Peoria's Carver Arena at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.
It's the second time in Slaughter's 13 years at Whitney Young that he'll be coaching the Dolphins for the title in consecutive years. He won it all in 2009 and finished second in 2010.
Apart from his team's size advantage, that's about all Muniz knows about the Maroons' opponent.
"We've not seen Whitney Young. And I'll be honest, we have had a motto 'one game at a time' all season," said Muniz, now in his 14th season at West. "I ask the coaches to not go look at the opponent unless we can see them live. I don't sit down and see film on another opponent until after the game.
"Tonight we'll see them live, then go back and watch some film later."
What he'll see on film of Whitney Young's 62-56 semifinal win over Evanston is athleticism — especially on defense — and resiliency.
The Dolphins trailed at halftime by seven, but rallied to the lead behind Javon Freeman, who scored 15 of his game-high 25 points in the second half. The 6-3 Valparaiso commit entered the tournament averaging 19.6 points per game.
Whitney Young also gets 12 points per game from junior Myles Baker and 11.8 from Xavier Castaneda.
Defensively, they forced 13 Evanston turnovers and had eight steals.
The Dolphins, runners up at the Chicago Public League Tournament, had a steeper climb to the state championship game, winning by no more than seven points since beating St. Joseph by 17 in the regional finals.
"This is how we've played throughout the playoffs — every game has been close at some point. We either led or had to come from behind," Slaughter said. "But the resiliency of these guys is what we're staking our claim on."
West's 11-point semifinal win over Elgin Larkin, by contrast, was its tightest margin of victory since defeating Webster Groves at the O'Fallon Shootout Feb. 3.
Belleville West has won a school record 32 games against two losses and has yet to score less than 62 points in a game. This is the Maroons' first state final four appearance in 52 years. Saturday's championship game will be their first.
Friday, the Maroons got another outstanding performance from Liddell, who scored 24 points. Junior Keith Randolph scored a double-double with 18 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Malachi Smith and junior Lawrence Brazil III had eight points apiece.
"That team is incredible with Liddell, an outstanding player," Slaughter said. "When you look at them in their totality, they have a lot of other good parts. What I'll tell you is that we're excited for the opportunity to play for that championship tomorrow. "Tonight, we'll go home, let these guys go to bed and we'll do our labor of love, which is to watch them on film and try to figure out what we can do."
Belleville West (31-2)
Coach: Joe Muniz (14th season, 208-173)
Classification enrollment: 2158
State tournament history: This is the Maroons' eighth trip to the state tournament and the first since 2003.
Last year: The Maroons lost to Edwardsville in the sectional semifinals.
Key players: Jr. Lawrence Brazil III (10.5 ppg, 63 rebounds, 85 assists); Sr. Malachi Smith (15.7 ppg, 199 rebounds, 112 assists); Jr. Keith Randolph Jr. (9.7 ppg, 215 rebounds, 42 assists); Sr. Curtis Williams (4.8 ppg, 79 rebounds, 26 assists); Jr. EJ Liddell (20.8 ppg, 266 rebounds, 92 assists)
Whitney Young (28-7)
Coach: Tyrone Slaughter (13th season, 288-102)
Classification enrollment: 3062.4
Conference: Chicago Public
State tournament history: This is the Dolphins' eighth trip to the state tournament.
Last year: The Dolphins defeated Simeon in the Class 4A state title game.
Key players: Sr. Javon Freeman (19.6 ppg, 199 rebounds, 72 assists); Jr. Myles Baker (12.0 ppg, 152 rebounds, 43 assists); Sr. Justin Boyd (7.4 ppg, 207 rebounds, 51 assists); Sr. Xavier Castañeda (11.8 ppg, 89 rebounds, 154 assists); Sr. Jake Kosakowski (5.9 ppg, 82 rebounds, 17 assists)