Edwardsville was feeling the heat Friday, but a seldom-used reserve helped ease the pressure.
Jack Marinko appeared to be trapped on the side, but he managed to slip a pass to Chrys Colley, who turned it into a three-point play that sparked the Tigers to a 67-60 victory over Belleville East in the championship game of the Class 4A East St. Louis Regional.
The top-seeded Tigers (25-4) led 57-53 when Marinko replaced Sammy Green, who fouled out. Colley’s three-point play made it 60-53 with 1:43 left, and after East inched within 60-55 on its next possession, Oliver Stephen found Mark Smith for a layup that made it 62-55. The plays proved too much for the fourth-seeded Lancers (18-11) to overcome.
If we were going to make a run at Edwardsville, it helps when Epenesa’s on the bench. Epenesa’s really hurt us the last two times. We were going to try to take him away.
Belleville East coach Abel Schrader on defending Edwardsville’s A.J. Epenesa
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“Jack-Jack really stepped up when he came in,” said Smith, whose 26 points led all scorers. “He knows he can play with us at this level because he practices with us. He was trapped and he made a smart play not picking (the ball) up and letting them take it from him. He kept his dribble and made a great pass to Chrys for an ‘and-one.’ That was a big play.
“Oliver made a good pass, too. That’s what kind of sealed the deal.”
Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo wasn’t surprised to see Marinko, a sophomore, step up.
“Jack is a good player. He’s got a lot of skill and he can shoot,” Waldo said. “He’s practiced a lot with us and he made some good plays for us.”
Edwardsville’s victory sends it to the Collinsville Sectional, where it will play Southwestern Conference rival Alton (15-9) at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The Tigers, on a 10-game winning streak, defeated Alton twice in the regular season: 64-47 in Edwardsville and 61-60 in Alton.
“They’re hard to play against,” Waldo said. “Us and Alton have had a lot of good games over the years. It’s been a good rivalry. We’ll just try to prepare and do the best we can.”
The regional championship was Waldo’s 20th in 28 seasons at Edwardsville.
The Tigers appeared to be in trouble when 6-foot-5 junior A.J. Epenesa fouled out with less than one second to play in the third quarter and Edwardsville leading 47-41.
East on three occasions trimmed its deficit to four points, but it could never get over the hump. And when Illinois recruit Javon Pickett fouled out with 3:53 to play, the Lancers’ task became even greater.
“If we were going to make a run at Edwardsville, it helps when Epenesa’s on the bench,” said Lancers coach Abel Schrader, whose team trailed 47-30 with 4:51 left in the third quarter. “Epenesa’s really hurt us the last two times. We were going to try to take him away.
“Our kids didn’t quit, and I knew they weren’t going to quit; they were going to keep playing. I was very proud of their efforts.”
Jack-Jack really stepped up when he came in. He knows he can play with us at this level because he practices with us. He was trapped and he made a smart play not picking (the ball) up and letting them take it from him. He kept his dribble and made a great pass to Chrys.
Edwardsville’s Mark Smith on teammate Jack Marinko’s key assist
Smith said the Tigers practice on playing without Epenesa, who had just nine points on 4-for-4 shooting from the field.
“We’re not a one-man team,” Smith said. “We’re really unselfish and we play together well. We practice without A.J. sometimes for situations like this. That’s due to Waldo’s preparation.”
Stephen added 12 points for the Tigers and Colley finished with 10. Edwardsville committed 19 turnovers, but made six 3-pointers. The Tigers were 17-for-26 from the free-throw line.
Pickett led the Lancers with 16 points, while Malachi Smith had 11 and Jalen Jones had 10. East had 10 turnovers and was 14-for-21 from the line. Nothing came easy for Pickett as he was guarded closely by Colley.
The teams were called for 45 fouls. Jones also fouled out for the Lancers.