With perfection on the line, the Edwardsville Tigers responded with a near perfect first quarter on Friday at Jackson-Lucco Gymnasium on Friday against the Belleville East Lancers.
Playing before the home crowd for the final time, senior Chrys Colley scored seven of his 14 points to get Edwardsville off and running early and three teammates were also in double figures as the Tigers wrapped up a perfect Southwestern Conference season with a 76-58 thumping of Belleville East.
Sophomore Caleb Strohmeier added five points in the opening quarter as Edwardsville displayed its entire offensive arsenal against a Lancers team looking to sew up a share of second place in the SWC.
Instead it was the Tigers who became the second SWC school in as many years to finish the league season with a perfect 14-0 mark. East St. Louis was 14-0 a year ago.
“There are a lot of great players, teams and coaches in the Southwestern Conference and every night you take the floor, you know you are going to be in for a battle. Our guys have practiced hard and worked hard to get to this point,” Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo said. “Tonight I thought Chrys (Colley) had a very good game on both ends of the floor to lead us. But it was a team effort.”
Back after missing the Tigers narrow win over O’Fallon earlier in the week because of the flu, junior AJ Epenesa led Edwardsville with 18 points while Oliver Stephen added five 3-point field goals and 17 points. Junior guard Mark Smith added 16 points for Edwardsville which heads into the Class 4A East St. Louis Regional next week with a mark of 23-4.
For Belleville East it was a long first half — especially on the defensive end of the floor where time and time again, Edwardsville players either got behind the Lancers defense for easy layups or were getting wide open jump shots.
“I don’t know what the problem was on defense in the first quarter especially. We gave them two many open looks and easy shots,” Lancers coach Abel Schrader said. “I thought we did a better job on both ends of the floor in the second half. We also played much harder in the second half.”
With Epenesa scoring eight points in the second quarter, Edwardsville led 37-22 at halftime.
With Smith and Stephen hitting back-to-back 3-point shots early in the third quarter, the Tigers continued to add to their lead and had a 47-29 lead when East (17-10, 8-6) showed signs of life.
Consecutive 3-point baskets by Malachi Smith followed by a 3-point shot by Drew Millas brought East to within 47-38 after three quarters.
But a free throw by Epenesa, consecutive baskets by Colley, a layup by Smith and a 3-point jumper by Stephen highlighted a 12-4 Tigers run to start the fourth quarter.
“I said it before but I thought Chrys Colley’s play tonight was a major factor in the outcome of this basketball game. He did a tremendous job of guarding Javon (Pickett) to 10 points and we were also able to get him some weakside help,” Waldo said. “Javon Pickett is a very good player and I thought we did a good job in containing him.”
Pickett led East with 10 points while Malachi Smith and Millas each added nine points.
“What does going undefeated in the conference mean? It means a lot because we’ve worked hard all year and nothing was given to us,” Epenesa said. “Every team in this league is good and we’ve been able to work hard and play well each night.”