EDWARDSVILLE — After finishing in the top four at the state tournament in 2013 and 2014, the Edwardsville Tigers had an early exit in the postseason last winter, falling to the Alton Redbirds in the Class 4A regional finals.
With three of their top scorers — juniors A.J. Epenesa, Mark Smith and Oliver Stephen — returning, the Tigers are setting their sights on going back to state in 2016.
“I saw them as a team that can get better because we lost to a good team in Alton last year,” Edwardsville senior Chrys Colley said.
The Tigers will head into the holiday break with a 6-2 mark after beating the Granite City Warriors 69-53 in a Southwestern Conference game on Friday. Edwardsville is also 4-0 in league play.
The Tigers won their fourth straight game, all of them were in double figures.
Edwardsville returns to action on Dec. 28, when it plays Mahomet-Seymour in the State Farm Tournament at Illinois Wesleyan University in Normal.
“If we continue to work hard in practice and continue to execute as a team, not just physically but mentally as well, then we have a good chance,” Colley said. “But we have to take it one game at a time and take it game by game, not look ahead at our schedule. We take it team by team and quarter by quarter and I think we’ll be fine.”
The Warriors dropped to 5-3 overall and 2-2 in conference play. They lost their second straight conference game after starting off at 2-0.
“To quite honest, our practice week was pretty bad,” Granite City coach Steve Roustio said. “We didn’t practice very well this week. We had a bad practice Monday and we had a horrendous practice yesterday. It kind of filtered into the game. If you’ve got to get stuff done in the game, you have to be able to have some pretty decent practices. They all don’t have to be great. They have to be intense and they have to be competitive. You’ve got to be fatigued at the end and you have to go hard. It’s kind of a simulated game. But our effort level in practice half of this week was well below average and it showed tonight.”
Granite City will play Edwardsville again on Feb. 12 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“We need to get back in the gym and regroup ourselves and get them back next time,” Granite City senior Ron Allen said.
The Warriors return to action on Dec. 28, when they play Hazelwood East in a first-round game of the Prairie Farms Holiday Classic at Collinsville High.
The Tigers never trailed in Friday’s game. They stormed to a 15-5 lead after the first quarter.
“It was big to start off the game,” Colley said.
The Warriors never recovered from the slow start. Edwardsville led 29-17 at halftime and 48-33 after the third quarter.
“When you’re playing here at Edwardsville, you can’t afford to get down early,” Roustio said. “Playing catching up here is not a good thing. They shot the ball pretty well in the first part of the game. They were making some shots. We couldn’t buy a basket. Even when we were down 8-1, I thought we were fighting. But you’ve got to make shots. You’ve got to make baskets. You can’t go empty trip after trip after trip. I’ve talked about this before with our guys and I’ve talked about it before with the media and that is you can’t put that much pressure on your defense to have to make stop after stop after stop. You have to be able to score.”
Smith, Epenesa and Stephen scored in double figures against the Warriors. Smith finished with a game-high 20 points, 10 in each half. Stephen had 16 points, including 10 in the second half. Epenesa had 10 points, including eight in the second half.
All three players are averaging in double figures, just like last year. After his performance on Friday, Stephen is the Tigers’ top scorer at 17.4 points per game.
Colley, who is one of four seniors on the Edwardsville roster, finished with 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
Senior Kenny Berry finished with 18 points and Ron Allen had 17 points for the Warriors. They combined to score 27 points in the second half.
Roustio said he was pleased with Allen’s effort. Allen scored 10 of his points in the third quarter.
“It was nice to see Ron knock down some shots,” the Granite City coach said. “He actually shot the ball pretty well in practice yesterday and it was nice to see him shoot with confidence because a lot of times, he passes up shots because I think it’s a little bit of a confidence thing, but I think tonight will be a boost for him because he was able to knock down three or four 3s. That’s good.”