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Photo by Theo Tate
Alton coach Eric Smith talks to his players at the end of the first quarter against Belleville East on Friday.
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Photo by Theo Tate
Alton senior Marcus Latham attempts a free throw in the third quarter against Belleville East on Friday. Latham finished with a game-high 25 points.
BELLEVILLE – As their season comes down to its final three weeks, the Alton Redbirds are setting their sights on winning a Southwestern Conference championship.
“That’s what we’re playing for,” Alton coach Eric Smith said. “That’s what you stress from day one, and that’s give yourselves an opportunity at the end of the season to hopefully play a game that would give us an opportunity to win conference.”
The Redbirds moved into sole possession of second place in the league standings at 6-3 after pulling off a 72-69 win over the Belleville East Lancers on Friday on the road. Alton snapped a two-game conference losing streak and avenged the 75-73 loss to Belleville East on Jan. 5 at Alton High.
“It’s a conference game,” Smith said. “It’s always going to be tight and close and teams aren’t going to lay down. They’ve got a nice team that is in the top half of the conference and they play hard. So we expected a battle.”
The Redbirds also improved to 10-8 overall and snapped a two-game losing streak.
“Obviously winning games are extremely important for us,” Smith said. “I thought the kids responded pretty well after the two games we played last week (against Granite City and Galesburg). They were two pretty good teams, so to be able to come back and understand that it was going to be a tough conference game on the road, it’s a credit to our kids.”
In order to win the conference title, the Redbirds must win their last five conference games and hope first-place Edwardsville stumbles down the stretch. The Tigers improved to 9-0 with a win over East St. Louis on Friday.
Alton plays East St. Louis at home on Feb. 9. The Redbirds also have Collinsville, Edwardsville, Belleville West and O’Fallon left in their regular season schedule.
“We need to keep playing hard,” Alton senior Paul Harris said. “Everybody’s got to buy in. It’s a team effort from starters to the bench. Coach always told us to buy in. When we buy in, we seem to do better.”
Out of Alton’s six conference wins, four of them came on the road, including Friday’s win over Belleville East.
The Redbirds, who finished second in the SWC in each of the last two seasons, won their first four conference games before Belleville East handed them their first loss a month ago. Alton also lost league games to Edwardsville and Granite City.
“We let a couple of games slip away, so that kind of hurt our chances (to win the SWC title) a little bit,” Smith said. “But we’ll continue to compete and see if we can get an opportunity at the end of the year to play that last game that would mean something in conference.”
Belleville East dropped to 14-9 overall and 5-5 in conference play. The Lancers lost five of their last six games after winning seven games in a row, including the victory over Alton last month.
The Redbirds had three players in double figures. Senior Marcus Latham scored 24 points, Harris finished with 18 – including 10 in the first half – and junior Ty’ohn Trimble had 11.
“We’ve got a little bit more production from some guys in this game than we did in the last game,” Smith said.
Alton led 33-31 at halftime. Trailing 47-42 midway in the third quarter, Alton came back with a 10-2 run to take a 52-49 lead and never looked back.
Latham broke the 49-49 tie by scoring on a conventional 3-point play with 31 seconds left in the third.
“That’s kind of what Marcus does for us,” Smith said. “He has the ability to score for us in different ways. It was a play that we needed and he had the confidence to try to make a play to help us win the game.”
With Alton leading 72-69, Belleville East had a chance to tie the game as time expired. But Enrico Sylvester’s 3-point shot bounced off the rim.
“We had to scrap at the end, but we came out on top, so that’s all that matters,” Harris said.
The Lancers had four players in double figures. They were led by Malachi Smith with 18 points, including 11 in the second half.
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