Belleville West basketball coach Joe Muniz was a little surprised with the way the Maroons played in the first half of their much-anticipated early season showdown with the East St. Louis Flyers Friday.
But he wasn’t surprised how his team reacted in the second half.
Senior all-state forward EJ Liddell scored 17 of his game high 23 points in the final two quarters as the defending Class 4A state champion Maroons rallied for a 54-50 win before a capacity crowd at East St. Louis High School.
Drawing a double team every time he touched the ball on offense in the first half, Liddell didn’t score his first basket until there was less than two minutes left in the second quarter and had just four points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first two periods.
With St. Louis University recruit Terrence Hargrove scoring eight of his 12 points and Elijah Rice and Richard Robinson combining for 13 points, the Flyers, ranked fourth in the Class 3A state poll, led 27-24 at halftime.
“First of all, the atmosphere was electric here tonight,” Muniz said. “I mean, a full house and we were playing a great basketball team. But I thought maybe we got caught up in it it a little bit in the first half. We did a lot of standing around.
“At halftime, I just reminded the players that we had played in big games last year and already this year. We had played on the biggest stage you can play at at this level.
Robinson, who led the Flyers (5-2, 3-1) with 13 points, extended the East St. Louis lead to 29-24 early in the third quarter. But an eight-point run midway through the period, which included a conventional three-point play by Liddell, a 3-point basket by Lawrence Brazil III and an offensive putback by Keith Randolph, gave the Maroons a 31-29 lead.
West, top-ranked in the Class 4A poll, would not trail again. With the score tied at 34 late in the period, a scramble occurred under the Maroons’ basket and heated words were exchanged by Liddell and a Flyers player.
The Flyers were hit with a technical foul and Liddell made both free throws to put his team ahead 36-34. Liddell scored 10 of his 23 points in the third quarter.
“They (East St. Louis) are a good team and I think we got caught up a little bit in everything instead of just playing the game in the first half. I’m just glad my teammates — my brothers — were there to pick us up,’’ Liddell said.
Liddell scored four points early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 42-36.
When asked about the technical foul, East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers had nothing to say. He left no doubt about how he felt about the effort his team gave.
“I thought we played hard. Those kids are in (the locker room) right now and are in tears,” Chamber said. “We battled and battled and battled and we’ll keep on battling. We’re not playing for Dec. 14, we’re playing for March. While this was a tough game to lose, playing and competing like we did can only help us.’’
Hargrove added 12 points for the Flyers, while Liddell was the lone Maroon in double figures.
“I thought Wiill (Shumpert) did a nice job of guarding Hargrove and Lawrence (Brazil) did a good job on (Cornelius) LeFlore,’’ Muniz said. He (LeFlore) hit a couple of 3’s, but that’s all he got.’’