Boys Basketball

Maroons must learn to ‘put games away’ if they want to repeat as state champs, coach says

Belleville West’s EJ Liddell slams home a monster dunk

Belleville West basketball star EJ Liddell threw a pass to himself off the backboard and then dunked it during the Maroons game with St. Louis Vashon during the championship game of the Highland Shootout.
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Belleville West basketball star EJ Liddell threw a pass to himself off the backboard and then dunked it during the Maroons game with St. Louis Vashon during the championship game of the Highland Shootout.

Battle tested from the outset of the season while playing a non-conference schedule that included games against top programs from eight states, Belleville West won two tournament titles, finished 9-3 in the Southwestern Conference and opens postseason play on Tuesday ranked second in the Class 4A state basketball poll with a 27-4 record.

And still, coach Joe Muniz is worried.

“Are we playing well? I don’’t think so. I don’t think we’ve played up to our full potential,” Muniz said last week. “We’ve had some nice wins. We’ve had the ball bounce our way quite a bit. But in the last seven games, the ball hasn’t bounced our way three times. That’s just the way it goes in a long season

“We haven’t clicked yet. But take nothing away from the teams who beat us. Collinsville, East St. Louis and Alton are very good teams and they were the better team on those nights.’’

West, which rebounded from a 44-43 loss to Alton last week, to post a regular season-ending 70-40 win over Granite City on Friday, plays host to a Class 4A regional this week. The Maroons will take on either O’Fallon or Belleville East in a regional semifinal at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball and Ohio State University recruit EJ Liddell has led the Maroons attack. Liddell is averaging 20.2 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and nearly four blocked shots per game and has once again been one of the top players in the nation.

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Belleville West coach Joe Muniz hopes to coach the Maroons to a second state championship during the postseason that begins Tuesday. Zia Nizami znizami@bnd.com

The Maroons have also gotten solid contributions from Lawrence Brazil III (13.0), Will Shumpert (9.3), Keith Randolph (9.2) and Jaylin Mosby (8.8) while senior Marcellus Romious and sophomore Tommie Williams have also played key roles.

Still, West has yet to play as well is it can, according to Muniz.

“The expectations for this year’s team are hard to meet. But when you lose a player like a Malachi Smith and you lose a player the caliber of a Curtis Williams, we aren’t the same team we were last year,’’ Muniz said. “The kids we have this year have worked hard and done well. But for some reason we just haven’t clicked yet.

“We play very, very well in spurts. Then it seems like we relax and teams get back into the game against us. A 10-point lead becomes a four-point lead. That’s probably the biggest thing we need to improve on. We need to do a better job of putting games away when we have the chance.’

Quincy and Chatham-Glenwood will meet in the other Belleville West Regional semifinal with the title game set for Friday at Belleville West. The winners of the Belleville West, Collinsville, Pekin and Champaign Centennial regions advance to the East Moline Sectional next week.

Ranked third in the state, Normal Community (24-3) is the top-seed at Pekin; fourth-ranked Danville (27-3) is the top seed at Champaign Centennial; and Collinsville (26-5) is ranked ninth and the top seed at the Collinsville regional.

Dean Criddle has worked at the Belleville News-Democrat for 32 years as a sports writer. Dean graduated from SIUE with a double major in journalism and English, is married and lives in Belleville.


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