GODFREY — Paul Harris said Friday was a super-charged night for the Alton boys' basketball team against rival Edwardsville.
The Redbirds wore their emotions on their sleeves in honor of the late Demonte Wigfall, a former player and 2015 graduate. He died in an auto accident Tuesday.
“I was very inspired because I have played basketball with him since we were kids,” said Harris, a 6-foot-1 senior.
The players wore “Redbirds for Life” warm-up shirts with Wigfall #2 on the back of them in memory of him.
Harris delivered a stimulating performance with a career-best 20 points and 7 rebounds. However, the Tigers fended off the Redbirds, 61-60, and clinched the outright Southwestern Conference championship.
Edwardsville, beating Alton for the second time this season, improved to 21-4 overall and 12-0 in the SWC. The Redbirds dropped to 12-9 and 8-4.
“It has really been an emotional week,” Harris said, echoing the feeling of his teammates. "We had to push through it. I thought tonight was my best game of the year and we tried to pull it out at the end of game.”
Tre Smith of AHS hit a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds remaining to get the Redbirds within a point of the Tigers, but the visitors’ Oliver Stephen held the ball out of bounds as the final seconds ticked away. The Redbirds couldn’t stop the clock because they were out of timeouts.
“Oliver is a really good basketball player and a very smart player,” Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo said of Stephen’s game-ending move. “Our kids did a lot of good things and I thought Alton played an excellent game. They were hard to guard.”
Smith’s 18 points complemented Harris' work, which included 10-for-14 shooting before he fouled out with 1:38 to play. The Redbirds were without key starter Maurice Edwards. The 6-0 junior was ineligible for the game, though he expects to return Tuesday when the Birds entertain Belleville West on Senior Night.
“Paul is a beast and he played inspired,” coach Smith said. “He and Demonte were pretty close.”
The game was just as close.
“It was a typical Alton/Edwardsville game,” Smith said. “The game is always a good one and very competitive. It was what you expected.
“We put together some runs and gave up a run.”
Early on, the Redbirds owned the momentum, leading 9-2 and 19-14 by the end of the first quarter. Then the Tigers went on a 14-0 spree in the second quarter to erase a 22-16 deficit and forge in front. They led 30-24 at the break and 39-28 midway through the third quarter.
Mark Smith and Iowa-bound footballer A.J. Epenesa spurred them. Smith scored a game-high 22 points, thanks to some sizzling shooting. He made 5 of 7 shots and 12 of 13 free throws. Epenesa, a 6-5 junior center, punched in 20 points.
“Mark has improved every week and A.J. did a lot of good things tonight,” Waldo said.
Smith and Harris helped the Redbirds get back in the game after the Tigers enjoyed their biggest advantage. Edwardsville led 41-33 before Alton scored the final 7 points of the third quarter. Harris tallied 6 of his points in the quarter and Kenneth Burnett hit a 3-pointer just before the buzzer.
Nevertheless, Edwardsville refused to relinquish the lead. The Tigers pushed ahead 50-44 with 4:07 to go, but the Redbirds got to within striking distance at 50-47, 55-51, 59-55 and 60-57. Mark Smith’s free throw with 13.9 seconds remaining made it 61-57.
Then Tre Smith countered with his trey, but the Redbirds couldn’t get the ball back for one more shot.
Overall, the Redbirds made 27 of 60 shots, including 5 treys. They were 1 of 7 on their free throws. The Tigers sank 19 of 37 shots and 20 of 26 free throws.
“They (Tigers) have some good players who can make big plays and that made for an exciting game,” Smith said.
An emotional one, too.
“I would agree that this week probably has been the most emotional one that I’ve had here,” said Smith, about to complete his fourth season with the Redbirds.
After they play host to West on Tuesday, the Birds will close their regular-season schedule Friday at O’Fallon. Then it’s Class 4A regional action at AHS. The Redbirds are seeded third, behind top-rated Edwardsville and second-ranked Quincy in Sub-Sectional B.
The Tigers still have SWC dates remaining with O’Fallon and Belleville East in their quest to go undefeated in the conference. East St. Louis went 14-0 last season in it.
“The league is very competitive and every game is a close one,” Waldo said. “Any win in the conference is a good one.”
EDWARDSVILLE 61, ALTON 60
Edwardsville 14 16 11 20 — 61
Alton 19 5 16 20 — 60
Edwardsville (21-4, 12-0) — Mark Smith 22, A.J. Epenesa 20, Oliver Stephen 7, Chrys Colley 5, Caleb Strohmeier 7. 2FG-16 3FG-3 FT-20 PF-12
Alton (12-9, 8-4) — Kevin Caldwell Jr. 5, Marcus Latham 5, Tre Smith 18, Jordan Golley 4, Paul Harris 20, Kenneth Burnett 3, Ty’ohn Trimble 5. 2FG-22 3FG-5 FT-1 PF-20