The Belleville West Maroons have been here before.
Three days shy of the one-year anniversary of its 60-56 overtime victory over Chicago Whitney Young in the Class 4A state title game, the Maroons return to Peoria Civic Center Friday two wins away from becoming the first southern Illinois team to win consecutive state championships since East St. Louis Lincoln won three straight from from 1987-89..
But first things first.
In order to have the opportunity to play for a second straight state title, the Maroons (32-4) must first get past a semifinal test against the No. 1-ranked Chicago Curie Condors.
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“Curie is Curie. They didn’t get to be 34-1 playing in the Chicago Public League for nothing. They are the No. 1 team in the state after taking that spot from us. We’re No. 2, so the stage is set,’’ Maroons senior guard Lawrence Brazil III said.
“Getting back to state this year, we’re better prepared. We were here last year and we know what to expect. We’ve played against many great teams with great players this year which has helped us get to this point. We’re as prepared as we can be.’’
The Curie-Belleville West contest is set for 7:15 p.m. and will follow the other semifinal pitting Evanston (31-4) against Rockford East (34-2) at 5:30 p.m. The semifinal winners play for the state title at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.
Also hosting the Class 3A State Tournament this weekend, Peoria Civic Center will have a strong Southwestern Conference feel to it as East St. Louis will take on Peoria Manual in a Class 3A semifinal at 1 p.m. Friday.
“”I’ve said it all year. The Southwestern Conference is one of the best in the state of Illinois,’’ West coach Joe Muniz said. “I’ve had people come up to me wanting to know how we could get beat by East St. Louis, Collinsville and Alton. The answer is obvious — they are all very good basketball teams. The fact that both us and East St. Louis are here just solidifies how good our conference really is.’’
Playing in the Chicago Public League, Curie is also well-tested. The Condors, who defeated league rival Simeon in the super-sectional, is led by Kansas State University recruit DeJuan Gordon (17.6 ppg) and senior Justin Harmon (15,6).
But Curie is much more than the Gordon-Harmon show according to coach Michael Oliver.
“We go about eight deep and they can all score,’’ Oliver said Wednesday. “When we share the basketball and get good shots like we did in the second half against Simeon on Tuesday, we’re tough to guard. One of the keys for us is that we play end-to-end pressure defense and we like to get it and go. The faster the pace, the better we are.’’
While containing the speed and nonstop pressure of Curie is a concern for the Maroons, the Condors face their own concerns in taking on the defending state champions, who after losing three games late in the season are playing their best basketball.
Led by three-time first team all-state senior EJ Liddell, Brazil and Keith Randolph, the Maroons enter the contest at their very best.
“I think getting to the state tournament this year means more because of how we did it,’’ Muniz said. “We’ve had that huge target on our backs from day one this year and I’m sure there were a lot of people who doubted us when we lost three of our last six games of the season.
“To be able to get back the way we have and to be playing our best basketball of the season right now makes it very special.’’
Muniz said Curie presents similar challenges his Maroons faced in Springfield Southeast and Bolingbrook, which West beat in the super-sectional earlier this week.
“They are not that big, but they are very quick and put full-court pressure on you from the opening tip to end end of the game,’’’ Muniz said. “They can shoot the basketball and, while they create matchup problems for us, I think we create problems for them because of our size and strength up front.
“We can’t play too fast. We have to get the ball inside and get good shots. The team that makes the proper adjustments will win the game.’’
Win or lose, the 2019 Class 4A state tournament will mark the the high school careers of several Maroons players.
“It has hit me that this is the end of my high school career this weekend,’’ Liddell said. It will be bittersweet if we win the state championship. On the one hand, I will be thrilled that we won. But on the other hand, I will be very sad because it will be the last time I wear a Maroons uniform and play for Coach Muniz. It’s been a great four years.’’