GRANITE CITY — A year ago, the Alton Redbirds turned in one of their best seasons in program history, winning 27 games and advancing to the sectional finals.
This winter, the Redbirds are picking up right where they left off from the 2014-2015 season. After beating the Granite City Warriors 65-59 on Friday, Alton improved to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in Southwestern Conference play.
“Our kids have responded really well,” Alton coach Eric Smith said. “The satisfying part of it is there wasn’t a whole lot of attention given to us in the beginning of the year because we graduated 10 seniors from last year, but our kids deserve everything they’ve got so far. They put the time and effort in and they play hard and for the most part, they’re unselfish and they’ve done a really nice job of that.”
The Redbirds, who finished second in the SWC standings at 12-2 last winter, also have league wins over O’Fallon and last year’s champion East St. Louis. Alton plays a home game against Collinsville next week.
The Warriors dropped to 5-2 overall and 2-1 in conference play. Granite City had its four-game winning streak snapped.
The Warriors, who beat O’Fallon and Belleville West in conference play, will play at Edwardsville next week. The Tigers are 5-2 overall and 3-0 in conference play.
“They’re very good players,” Granite City coach Steve Roustio said. “They won a lot of games and they won some postseason games, so they know what it takes. I think this group of kids I have right now believe they can go to Edwardsville and come out with a victory.”
On Friday, Alton took a 17-7 lead before Granite City rallied to tie the game at 21-21 after the first quarter. The Redbirds led 39-32 at halftime after closing out the second quarter on a 10-2 run.
With the game tied at 51-51 early in the fourth quarter, Alton went on a 9-1 run to take a 60-52 lead and never looked back.
“We went into the fourth quarter and we wanted to win this game,” Alton senior Marcus Latham said. “It was a dog fight. It was back and forth and a lot of loose balls and all of that. We have to keep playing. We can’t give up and we have to come out and playing hard.”
Alton graduated 10 players from last year’s team and players such as Latham and Tre Smith didn't log many varsity minutes. On Friday, the Alton seniors played key roles in the win over Granite City. Latham scored a team-high 22 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Smith finished with 18 points, including 15 in the first half.
“Me scoring a lot of points is a plus, but getting the win is a whole lot better,” Latham said. “There was a lot of hype in this game because we’re both undefeated in the conference, so coming out with a win means a lot.”
Latham hit three of his four 3-pointers in the final quarter, including one with seven minutes left that gave Alton a 54-51 lead it would not relinquish.
“Those 3s that Latham hit were huge, though,” Roustio said. “If he misses those, it would have been a different outcome.”
Latham is the Redbirds’ leading scorer at 17 points per game. Smith is now averaging 10 points per game after his performance against the Warriors.
Also for Alton, junior Maurice Edwards finished with 12 points and sophomore Kevin Caldwell Jr. had 11.
Latham said he has high hopes for the Redbirds, who also own wins over Northwest Academy and Chatham Glenwood.
“As long as we keep doing like we’re doing like shooting the ball, playing hard on defense and diving for the loose balls, I think we should be really good,” the Alton senior said.
Granite City senior Tra’ Allen scored 24 points, 11 in the first half and 13 in the second. He also was 12 of 18 from the free throw line.
“For him to have 24 points on the game, that was by far his best offensive night,” Roustio said. “But Tra’ is capable of doing that that. Even though he hasn’t until this point, he’s very capable of playing at that level, being able to get fouled, get to the free throw line and knock down some 12 footers, 10 footers and rapid fire shots underneath the basket.”
Also for the Warriors, senior Kenny Berry scored 15 points with three 3-pointers.