For Edwardsville junior Oliver Stephen and the Tigers it’s all about being prepared.
But for the third time in as many games against Belleville West this season, having AJ Epenesa to dominate didn’t hurt either on Tuesday in a 69-44 Edwardsville rout over the Maroons.
Using his strength and mobility to lead the Edwardsville attack, Epenesa scored a game-high 24 points, while Stephen connected on seven 3-point field goals and scored 23 points as the top-seeded Tigers moved into the title game of the Class 4A East St. Louis Basketball Regional with the lopsided win.
One night after an impressive win over Southwestern Conference rival O’Fallon, Belleville West (14-14) was dealt a severe blow when 6-6 freshman EJ Liddell picked up two fouls in the first 3 minutes 39 seconds of the first quarter. With Liddell sitting out much of the first half and finishing with just three points and 6-7 junior Tyler Dancy struggling to find the range early, Edwardsville (24-4) jumped out to leads of 18-4 after one quarter and 29-16 at halftime.
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Stephen then connected on 4-of-6 3-point shots as the Tigers extended their lead to 52-31 after three quarters.
“We’re not looking ahead. For the last three days were we were preparing and watching film to get ready to play either Belleville West or O’Fallon and then today we were getting ready to play Belleville West,’’ Stephen said. “Sure we had beaten them twice during the regular season, but everyone knows how difficult it can be to beat a good team three times in the same year. We weren’t looking past this game in the least.’’
With their win over the Maroons, Edwardsville will now prepare to play either Belleville East or East St. Louis in the regional title game on Friday. The Lancers and Flyers will meet in the other semifinal on Wednesday beginning at 7 p.m.
Whether it be Belleville East or East St. Louis playing the undefeated regular season SWC champion Tigers, the winner will have to be at the top of its game against a Tigers team which seems to be playing as well as it has all season.
“I thought we did a number of things very well tonight on both ends of the floor. We made good passes to Oliver (Stephen) who was open and I thought AJ (Epenesa) did a nice job of scoring when he got the ball in the post,’’ Tigers coach Mike Waldo said. “Belleville West is a very well coached and good basketball team.
“This (East St. Louis) regional may be the toughest we’ve played in in a long time. Whoever wins tomorrow (Wednesday), it will be a good regional final on Friday.’’
While Epenesa and Stephen combined for 47 points, it was senior Chrys Colley who got the Tigers off to a good start. Colley tallied seen of his nine points in the first quarter while the 6-5 Epenesa scored six points.
But unable to hit a jump shot from the perimeter, the Maroons hopes for an upset were dealt a severe blow when Liddell picked up his second foul on a questionable call near mid-court not even four minutes into the game.
“Yes it was big call when EJ picked up the second foul and it was unfortunate in the way it happened,’’ Maroons coach Joe Muniz said.
“Edwardsville is a very good basketball team. They have a very good point guard in Mark (Smith) a very good post player in Epenesa in the middle and player in Stephen who can can stroke it from the perimeter. Plus their role players are very good.’’
Dancy, who led Belleville West with 14 points, scored six in the second quarter as West stayed within shouting distance of the Tigers, trailing 29-16 at halftime.
Baskets by Dancy and junior guard DeAndre Jackson brought West to within 10 points, but with Stephen getting and making wide open jumpers from the left side and Smith adding a 3-point jumper and scoring seven of his 13 points. the Tigers put the game away.
Epenesa continued to terrorize the Maroons on Tuesday. After scoring 30 and 21 points in regular season wins, the University of Iowa football recruit showed his versatility by getting the ball on top of the circle and either taking the ball to the basket of driving and passing the ball to the Edwardsville shooters.
Twice in the Tigers third quarter scoring run, Epenesa whistled bullet like passes to Stephen for open jumpers.