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Previewing Peoria: Stage set for a fabulous state finals

Curie's Justin Harmon (24) gets a fast break for a dunk against Simeon, Tuesday 03-11-19. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

The moment of truth has arrived for Peoria and for high school basketball fans across the state. Eight teams will converge on Carver Arena this weekend. Teams from every corner of the state, with star players and gaudy records.

Big towns like Rockford, Evanston, Belleville and East St. Louis are represented. Even a hometown favorite, Peoria Manual, has advanced to the semifinals.

Due to a scheduling quirk the state finals won’t have to compete with the NCAA Tournament. All the pieces are in place for a big crowd. If that doesn’t materialize there isn’t a single reason to keep the event in Peoria when the contract expires after next season.

It should be a fabulous weekend of basketball. Here’s a look at Friday’s four semifinals.

Class 4A: Evanston (31-4) vs. Rockford East (34-2), 5:30 p.m.

The Wildkits return to Peoria after finishing third last season. Seniors Lance Jones, Jaheim Holden and Ryan Bost have been playing together since third grade and have chemistry and focus. Sophomore Blake Peters has continued to improve and 6-3 Jaylin Gibson has become a difference-maker.

“Lance’s maturity and leadership is really what has taken his game to another level,” Evanston coach Mike Ellis said. “His leadership has stood out more than his points and assists.”

The E-Rabs counter with 6-3 junior Sincere Parker, a breakout star, and point guard Chris Burnell.

“[Burnell] is the school’s all-time scoring and assists leader,” Rockford East coach Roy Sackmaster said. “He holds it all together with his leadership and his poise.”

The Wildkits lack size, but they’ve been dealing with that issue successfully all season. The E-Rabs have a dependable tall scorers in Parker and 6-6 Sha’Den Clanton.

This is Rockford East’s first trip to state in 41 years.

“They’ve become rock stars here in town,” Sackmaster said. “The crowds have been growing as we have gone on this run. “It is just overwhelming the support we have gotten from the community.”

4A: Belleville West (32-4) vs. Curie (34-1), 7:15 p.m.

The game of the weekend. The Maroons are the defending Class 4A state champions and the Condors are the state’s current top-ranked team.

“It’s going to sell tickets,” Curie coach Mike Oliver said. “I love the challenge and we got it. I told the guys if you want to be the best we have to go down there and beat Belleville West.”

Both teams are experienced and have star power. For Belleville West it is EJ Liddell, an Ohio State recruit and the reigning Mr. Basketball. For Curie it is DaJuan Gordon, the Sun-Times Player of the Year. Gordon does a lot on the court, but his scoring totals have been low in the playoffs.

“When we go down to Peoria he is not going to play like that,” Condors senior Trevon Hamilton said. “He’s going to go back to being the superstar we know he is.”

Belleville West coach Joe Muniz says that during the season “you could see the pressure kind of mount on our kids.” Muniz said getting to state has relieved some of that and the team is refocused.

“Not to say the regular season didn’t matter, it did,” Muniz said. “But the goal to get back to state and win a state championship has been there since the day we left Peoria. They know it is now or never. These guys are resilient, they are winners. They have handled the pressure. Right now they are very confident, playing their best basketball of the season.”

3A: DePaul Prep (25-9) vs. Bogan (29-3), 11 a.m.

Two schools making state debuts. The Bengals are deepest of the eight teams in Peoria this weekend and have proven they are good enough to win Class 4A. Rashaun Agee is the state’s best big man and Jordan Booker is an unflappable lead guard.

Bogan has size, speed and confidence. Expect the Rams to try and slow things down. Perry Cowan and Raheem Anthony are smart, dynamic and dependable guards.

“Perry Cowan is the ultimate student-athlete,” DePaul coach Tommy Kleinschmidt said. “He is our ultimate leader, he’s played in over 130 varsity games. He’s a two-way player.”

DePaul Prep’s hopes may hinge on 6-6 senior Pavle Pantovic. He’s a hard-nosed player but will have his hands full with Bogan’s large stable of athletic bigs.

“Man, these kids are hyped,” Bogan coach Arthur Goodwin said. “They are excited. We love playing on big courts. In Chicago we have little bitty gyms. We have big guys that can run the floor like deer.”

DePaul started the season 11-1 and then hit a rough patch during a challenging stretch of the schedule when a pair of key players were injured.

“That adversity really tested our character,” Kleinschmidt said. “We were 11-1 and then we went 6-7. We had all these expecations and we hit a big bump in the road. They fought through it and finished the league strong. Once they won the league they were not only happy, they were relieved.”

3A: East St. Louis (28-6) vs. Peoria Manual (19-11), 1 p.m.

Flyers senior Terrence Hargrove has been one of the state’s best players for the past three seasons. He finally gets a chance on the big stage. The St. Louis recruit averaged 18 points and 8.9 rebounds.

“Hargrove completely bought into me from the jump,” East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers, who took over this season, said. “I had not met him. He has been the leader in getting the other kids to understand me. With him having five different coaches it would have been easy for him stay ‘whatever.’ But he’s been completely awesome. He’s the same person everyday, smiling, happy. He works hard. He’s so humble and such a great young man.”

East St. Louis is a heavy favorite in this one. The Flyers won the Southwestern Conference, finishing ahead of Belleville West, and lost to Curie in overtime back in November.

Manual’s playoff run has been led by junior Rolando “Pee Wee” Brown, who scored 33 in the supersectional win against Glenbard South.