EAST ST. LOUIS — It was a tale of two halves Friday for the Alton Redbirds in East St. Louis. Luckily the second half belonged to the Redbirds.
An energetic second-half surge spurred Alton to a 65-62 victory over the host Flyers in both teams' Southwestern Conference opener. The Birds improved to 3-1 and 1-0, while East Side dipped to 1-3 and 0-1.
Alton trailed 32-22 at the break, but turned to a box-and-one defense to start the second half. As time expired on the third quarter Maurice Edwards' 3-pointer drew the Redbirds even at 43-43 and they led by as much as 62-51 with one minute remaining in the game.
“This was good,” AHS head coach Eric Smith said. “I think a lot of people take the rivalry between us and East St. Louis and they get pretty excited about it. If I'm not mistaken I don't think they lost a game last year in conference at any level. They're a quality group of kids and program, but we've been trying to beat it into our kids head that if we play unselfish and we play hard we'll be fine and the first half we struggled with that a little bit and our kids, to their credit, they played together and that's when we went on our run and we pulled away.”
Alton senior Marcus Latham added, “We really wanted this game. We want to win the conference. We stepped it up on defense and we came out with the win. Coach wanted us to come out (in the second half) aggressive. (Kenny Roberson) was hitting all those shots and we went box-and-one and that's what slowed them down and turned us up a little bit.”
East Side's Kenny Roberson was unconscious shooting the ball in the first half. He finished with a game-high 21 points, 19 in the first half and 17 of them coming in the second quarter spurred by five 3-pointers.
Overall the Flyers drained eight first-half treys and looked like they had the Birds buried entering the half.
“We didn't rebound at first, but we continued play hard, continued to fight and never gave up,” Alton's Kevin Caldwell Jr. said. “We came out and got in that box-and-one and really slowed that shooter down, started playing as a team and sharing the ball on offense and that really got us back in the game.”
The Redbirds only led once during the first half when Caldwell sank a 3-pointer to open the second quarter to give them a 9-8 lead. They were outscored 24-9 the remainder of the quarter to enter the half down 32-22.
But AHS came out a revitalized squad in the third quarter. Caldwell hit a couple treys and Latham hit one to get the Birds percolating, but it was Edwards' 3-pointer that really lit the fire under them.
Kenneth Burnett's bucket cut it to 41-40 with 1:34 to go in the third. A pair of free throws by Antonio Johnson with four seconds to go put the Flyers up 43-40, setting up Edwards heroics.
As the buzzer sounded Alton's junior guard heaved up a 3-pointer that went through to tie it at 43-43 and the bench erupted in appreciation.
“I thought (Latham) was going to shoot actually,” Edwards said. “But (Smith) was preaching to us, play together, trust your teammates and he passed it to me and I was ready for the shot.”
It sparked a strong fourth quarter from the Birds, who elevated their lead to double figures at 57-47 on a shot by Dereaun Clay with 4:21 to play and they led by as much as 11 at 62-51 with a minute to play when Edwards sank a pair of free throws.
A barrage by the Flyers in the final minute made it look closer than it was, as Johnson hit a couple treys and Patrick Baxter had five points, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The unselfish play of the Redbirds saw them with seven players in the scoring column Friday. Edwards led the charge with 19, while Caldwell had 16 and Latham netted 14, but 7 points from Tre Smith, 5 from Clay and 2 each from Jordan Golley and Burnett may have pleased Smith the most.
“That's one of the things in our tournament we were lacking was unselfish play,” Smith said. “We'd break people down and get a paint touch but then try to shoot over the top of guys. We did that at the beginning of this game. Our perimeter kids are really, really good and as long as they play together we're going to be fine. We've got really good perimeter kids and I'll put our three kids (Edwards, Caldwell and Latham) up against anybody else's.”
Edwards thinks as the Redbirds begin to spread their wings there are fruitful times on the horizon for them. He believes Friday was just a taste of what they can accomplish.
“We feel like we can win the conference,” he said. “We should win the conference with all the weapons; our team is loaded. I feel like we have the best team in the conference.”
The Birds will look to keep their winning ways in the SWC rolling when they play host to O'Fallon at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Panthers opened league play with a 49-30 loss to Granite City at the Panther Dome on Friday.
ALTON 65, EAST ST. LOUIS 62
Redbirds 6 16 21 22 — 65
Flyers 8 24 11 19 — 62
ALTON (3-1, 1-0) — Marcus Latham 14, Jordan Golley 2, Tre Smith 7, Kevin Caldwell Jr. 16, Maurice Edwards 19, Kenneth Burnett 2, Dereaun Clay 5.
FLYERS (1-3, 0-1) — Antonio Johnson 15, Marquise Chairs 7, Kenny Roberson 21, Karon Randolph 5, Patrick Baxter 7, Reyondous Estes 2, Jermaine Grissom 5.