ALTON — Shocked.
That's the best word to describe the Alton Redbirds after Friday's 59-58 loss to East St. Louis to open Southwestern Conference play.
East Side's Kenny Roberson got the ball with under three seconds left in regulation and threw up a running 3-pointer between two defenders from the top of the key. The ball banked off the glass and in as the buzzer sounded, sending a devastated Alton squad to the locker room with its first loss of the season.
The win saw the Flyers improve to 2-3 and 1-0 in the SWC, while AHS slipped to 4-1 and 0-1.
The Redbirds were stunned, after leading from the end of the first quarter until midway through the fourth quarter.
“We just made too many mistakes,” Alton head coach Eric Smith said. “It's not that shot, it's free throws, it's offensive rebounds, it's turnovers. The difference being is in the first half they weren't necessarily solid with the basketball and then all of the sudden they got solid with the basketball and didn't turn it over, so what we did in the first half looked completely different in the second half because they didn't turn the basketball over.”
East St. Louis head coach Tony Young praised Roberson for his effort in the second half. Eight of Roberson's 12 points came in the second half as the junior shooting guard saw more time with the Flyers in foul trouble. He also hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to close the third quarter.
For a team that is young and inexperienced at guard, it was a welcomed sight to see Roberson step up.
“That kid (Roberson), we call him the preacher,” Young said. “When I say he played his tail off for us — JV game and then came back and in this game and gave us some huge minutes.
“We've got to give a hand to Alton, those boys played hard. We got down early and it was tough to fight back. Every time we fought back it just seemed like we couldn't get over that hump, but at the end of the game all it takes is one point.”
Alton's intensity early was hard to match for East Side. The Redbirds came out smothering on defense. They forced the Flyers into 10 first-quarter turnovers and forced 6-foot-11 sophomore sensation Jeremiah Tilmon to the bench with two early fouls.
East St. Louis still led 12-11 with 2:06 to play in the opening frame though, but AHS scored the final six points of the quarter on buckets from Darrius Edwards, Demonte' Wigfall and Bryan Hudson to own a 17-12 advantage.
East Side wouldn't lead again until the fourth quarter.
“We were pretty sloppy at the beginning of the game, but I thought our energy was great,” Smith said.
The Birds expanded their lead to 10 at 28-18 with 4:04 to play in the first half when Tilmon picked up his third foul on a technical. Alton's Isaiah Thurmond stepped to the charity stripe and knocked both shots down. A Maurice Edwards score then extended it to 30-18 with 3:27 left in the opening half.
“It's hard, because when you play a game like this you're going to muck it up a little bit,” Young said. “There's going to be a lot of stuff going on where they're going to get into you, you're going to get into them and they had some guys in foul trouble early, too. That's not an excuse, it's the way it goes. Jeremiah is not our whole team, but when it boils down to it, it's a matter of making plays, taking care of the ball and having poise at the end of the game.”
East Side clawed back to make it 38-22, but a 3-pointer by Wigfall and a free throw by Thurmond closed out the first half with the Redbirds leading 36-28.
The Flyers shaved that eight-point deficit down to three by the end of the third quarter when Roberson nailed his first buzzer-beating trey.
They kept dwindling the deficit until Tilmon laid it off the glass with 3:43 left in the game to give East St. Louis a 50-49 lead. The Flyers led 54-53 with 49 seconds to go on a score by Antonio Johnson, but Darrius Edwards dealt a big blow for the Redbirds less than seven seconds later.
Edwards flew into the lane, hit a layup and coaxed Tilmon to foul out of the game with 42.7 seconds left. The AHS senior then sank his free throw and gave his squad a 56-54 lead.
Johnson's shot for East Side with 11.3 left tied it again at 56-56 and looked like it may send the game to an extra frame, but Maurice Edwards streaked down the court, into the lane and drew a foul with 3.4 seconds to go. The Alton sophomore sank two clutch free throws and looked to seal the deal for the Birds. Roberson and the Flyers had different thoughts though, as the junior guard hit the desperation 3-pointer to end the game.
Darrius Edwards led all scorers with 21 points, while Hudson chipped in with 12 for the Redbirds. East Side got 12 each from Roberson, Johnson and Tyrone Riley. Tilmon finished with eight in limited minutes.
Alton's Carlos Anderson was also in foul trouble for much of the game, finishing with four points, all coming in the second half. Smith admitted the Redbirds need Anderson on the court more than he was Friday.
“We need him to be on the floor more than he was tonight,” Smith said of Anderson. “I think the hard part is everybody thinks he needs to score more points, but if he defends and rebounds like he has in the first four games and he's on the floor, we're pretty good. All those offensive rebounds they got first half are a little different story if he's standing down there sucking them all in.”
Young said what Friday showed was what can be expected in a strong SWC with lots of parity this season. He believes wire-to-wire basketball games won't be rare in the league in '14-15.
“We've got a lot of good teams in this conference this year,” he said. “We've got to be prepared.”
It won't get easier for the Redbirds, who head to the Panther Dome in O'Fallon at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to take on the talented O'Fallon Panthers.
Follow Bill Roseberry on Twitter @broseberry51.
EAST ST. LOUIS 59, ALTON 58
EAST ST. LOUIS 12 16 16 15 — 59
ALTON 17 19 11 11 — 58
ALTON (4-1, 0-1) — Darrius Edwards 21, Carlos Anderson 4, Bryan Hudson 12, Isaiah Thurmond 7, Maurice Edwards 6, Demonte' Wigfall 7, Josh Lovings 1. 2FG — 17 3FG — 2 FT — 16 PF — 11
EAST ST. LOUIS (2-3, 1-0) — Marquise Chairs 2, Antonio Johnson 12, Tyrone Riley 12, Patrick Baxter 4, Jeremiah Tilmon 8, Karon Randolph 5, Markeese Fair 2, Kenny Roberson 12. 2FG — 22 3F — 3 FT — 4 PF — 17