EJ Liddell and the Belleville West Maroons saved the best for last Saturday against the Springfield Southeast Spartans.
Liddell made two free throws with 29 seconds remaining to give the Maroons the lead then watched as Southeast guard Terrion Murdix’ runner from the lane bounced off the back rim at the buzzer to clinch a 74-73 win before a large crowd at Belleville West High School.
Southeast, the Class 3A state tournament runner-up a year ago and ranked third in the state this year, had the defending 4A state champion Maroons on the ropes for much of the night.
With sharpshooting James Dent making six 3-point shots and the lightning quick Spartans refusing to back down against the top-ranked Class 4A team in the state, Southeast led by as many as nine points in the second quarter and by four points with just over a minute remaining.
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But when Dent, whose 3-point jumper at the buzzer gave Southeast a win over Collinsville at the Collinsville Holiday Tournament, saw his baseline 3-point attempt go in-and-out, West and Liddell had life.
“He (Dent) had been knocking down 3-pointers all night. I don’t know if it was the right time,’’ Liddell said. “I got the rebound and nobody stopped the ball and I got fouled. I think I’m a pretty good free throw shooter. I’ve been shooting them my whole life.’’
Liddell calmly made both free throws to give his team the lead for good. The 6-foot-7 Liddell fiinished with 29 points and took over the game scoring 18 of those points in the final period.
The win moves the Maroons to 20-1 for the season, while Springfield Southeast falls to 18-2. And while the Maroons thrilled the large turnout with another impressive effort, playing another great opponent will do nothing but help coach Joe Muniz’ team as it prepares to defend its state championship beginning in a little over a month.
“What a war. I mean I’m sweating through my shirt here. What a good team Southeast is. It’s really a shame that anybody had to lose this game,’’ Muniz said. “What do I say about my kids. They kept battling back, made a couple of big stops in the last few minutes and then EJ making a couple of big plays down the stretch.
“We knew this was going to be a war. They are a hard team to prepare for .... especially when you have no practice days to do it. I’m going to be honest. Win or lose, a game like this is making us better. I’m sure its making them better too.’’
Southeast led by seven points late in the second quarter. But when West sophomore Tommy Williams scored on a conventional 3-point play as time expired in the first half, the Maroons had the mommentum, despite trailing 34-30.
West carried over that momentum early in the third quarter. Keith Randolph scored four quick points and Will Shumpert hit a 3-point jumper as West took its first lead since early in the game.
But with Davis scoring six points and Dent connecting on two of his six 3-point jumpers, the Spartans didn’t go away.
“My kids played hard. We came to win. We came down here with one goal in mind and that was to win the game. We just didn’t knock down the shot in the end,’’ Spartans coach Lawrence Thomas said. “We competed. They (West) are a big and physical team. My kids didn’t back down though.’’
Randolph added 13 points for West while Williams added 11.