Edwardsville’s amazing run of success in the Southwestern Conference came to an abrupt and painful end Tuesday night.
After going 14-0 in the regular season and 2-0 in the postseason against SWC opponents, the Tigers succumbed to Alton 63-59 in the semifinals of the Class 4A Collinsville Sectional before a loud crowd of about 2,000 at Fletcher Gym.
We lost the first two (to Edwardsville), so we wanted to come out and win this game. Coach (Eric Smith) told us to be aggressive and go at the teeth (of their defense), and that’s what we did.
Alton’s Marcus Latham
Marcus Latham’s two free throws with six seconds to play clinched the win for the Redbirds (16-10), who will meet East Moline United (23-6) in the title game at 7 p.m. Friday. East Moline United nipped Rock Island 55-54 in two overtimes in the other semifinal.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“We lost the first two (to Edwardsville), so we wanted to come out and win this game,” said Latham, who scored 16 points and was one of four Redbirds in double figures. “Coach (Eric Smith) told us to be aggressive and go at the teeth (of their defense), and that’s what we did.”
Alton’s dribble-drives hurt the Tigers (25-5) throughout the game, with Latham, Maurice Edwards and Ty’ohn Trimble breaking down Edwardsville’s interior defense.
“They present a lot of problems defensively,” Tigers coach Mike Waldo said. “They do good things against the zone. They do hard things to defend. Their action against the zone is excellent. We wanted to play zone against them, but we were having trouble defending them because their zone offense was so good in the first half.
“In the second half, we tried to change it up because we knew we had to do something different. So we played man-to-man and what hurt us there is ... 25 (Edwards) is very good. He made some very, very hard shots.”
Alton, seeking its first sectional championship since 2005 when it defeated Edwardsville, limited 6-foot-5 A.J. Epenesa to four of his 18 points in the second half. Colley scored a career-high 22 points as the Redbirds played off him to contain Epenesa.
“We knew he was going to score,” Smith said. “But we had to make it a little bit more difficult for him to score. If he was going to get 15, it was going to have to be a tough 15.”
Alton also contained juniors Mark Smith and Oliver Stephen to a combined 15 points.
The game was deadlocked at 27 at halftime, but Alton led 42-40 after three quarters. The Redbirds moved ahead 53-49 on a layup by Paul Harris on a nice feed from Trimble with 2:51 to play, and the margin grew to 55-49 on Trimble’s tough drive and layup.
Colley’s 3-pointer and Epenesa’s basket cut Edwardsville’s deficit to 55-54 with 1:15 remaining. Alton led 59-56 when Epenesa was fouled in the lane as his shot rolled off the left side of the rim. Epenesa, however, missed both free throws with 16.7 seconds left, and Edwards sank two free throws to make it 61-56 with 13.5 seconds to play.
Free throws at the end were the biggest thing. Throughout the course of the season, free-throw shooting, for the most part, was kind of rough for us in different stretches. In the last three games, we’ve shot free throws really well.
Alton coach Eric Smith
Stephen hit a 3 with nine seconds left, setting the stage for Latham’s final free throws.
Alton finished 9-for-12 from the free-throw line, all in the second half. The Redbirds committed just five turnovers compared to 11 for the Tigers.
“Free throws at the end were the biggest thing,” Eric Smith said. “Throughout the course of the season, free-throw shooting, for the most part, was kind of rough for us in different stretches. In the last three games, we’ve shot free throws really well.”
Edwards (18 points), Trimble (13) and Harris (10) joined Latham in double figures. Trimble, who didn’t start, was 4-for-4 from the line. Trimble also banked in a 35-foot 3-pointer that tied the game at 14 after one quarter, then opened the second quarter with an over-the-shoulder shot that made it 16-14.
My guys played hard, they played together, they gave it everything they had. And they executed everything we asked. Sometimes you get beat, and that’s sports. Alton just played very well. They really know how to play.
Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo
Colley was sensational in defeat with his 22 points, including three 3-pointers. It came as small consolation.
“I just tried to be aggressive as much as I can,” Colley said. “Coach Waldo told us in practice that me and (Caleb) Strohmeier were going to be open. I’ve been practicing that (3-point) shot all week; for the whole season, I’ve been practicing that shot. It’s something that wasn’t new to me. I just had to stay confident in myself.”
Waldo credited Alton.
“My guys played hard, they played together, they gave it everything they had,” Waldo said. “And they executed everything we asked. Sometimes you get beat, and that’s sports.”