Belleville West’s EJ Liddell (32) gets a dunk to put his team up for good against Evanston in the 4A state championship at Peoria Civc Center in Peoria IL, Saturday 03-16-19. Worsom Robinson/For Sun-Times

March Rewind: Best teams, best games, biggest stories

SHARE March Rewind: Best teams, best games, biggest stories
SHARE March Rewind: Best teams, best games, biggest stories

The season is complete and there is plenty to look back on when it comes to the high-stakes month of March. Here is a City/Suburban Hoops Report March Rewind.


Belleville West

Since the IHSA went to the four-class system for the 2007-2008 season there has always at least been a question raised as to what big school team is the best in the state? The 3A champ or the 4A champ?

There is no question in 2018-2019. The best team in Illinois is Belleville West.

The Maroons, guided by a classy and highly-respected head coach in Joe Muniz and led by star EJ Liddell, had such a business-like approach to their season, particularly during their postseason run.

Lawrence Brazil was selfless and fearless in big moments. Jaylin Mosby scored 29 points in the two wins. Keith Randolph perked up, provided enthusiasm and was huge in the semifinal win over Curie. Will Shumpert’s above-the-rim play and 21 points in 21 minutes was pivotal in the state championship.

Yes, Liddell played like the star that he is but everyone played a part in Belleville West’s run.

There is no debate as to what team is the best in Illinois. The only debate is Belleville West 2018 vs. Belleville West 2019?


Southwestern supremacy

The debate over the state’s best conference this year centered around the Public League’s Red-South/Central and Red-West/North –– at least in the Chicago area.

But how about the Southwestern Conference in southern Illinois? In a rare feat, the league produced both the Class 4A and Class 3A state champions in Belleville West and East St. Louis, respectively.

In addition, Collinsville won 27 games and beat East St. Louis during the regular season, while Alton was a 23-win team. Both of their seasons ended in March to conference foes. Alton beat Collinsville in the regional final and then lost two Belleville West in the sectional semifinals.

This is a conference with so many great basketball programs, players and coaches over the years. Collinsville has a nearly unmatched history and tradition. And both O’Fallon and Edwardsville have taken their turn in the spotlight in the past two decades.

Edwardsville has been a power under coach Mike Waldo, who recently retired after being a perennial 20-plus win program for three decades. Waldo reached the state finals five times, finishing third in 2013 and fourth in 2014. And from 2005-2011 O’Fallon averaged 23 wins a year, won three sectional titles and finished second in the state in 2007 and fourth in 2010.

The North Lawndale-Farragut scuffle

History and headlines were made for all the wrong reasons in the sectional championship game featuring two West Side rivals.

The IHSA was really left with no choice after the North Lawndale-Farragut game turned into a brawl in the closing minute. With punches thrown and benches cleared, the game ended with both teams disqualified from state tournament play.

New blood in Peoria

There certainly was some familiarity in Peoria.

Evanston and Belleville West returned for a second straight year. Curie was the Class 4A champ in 2016. In Class 3A, Peoria Manual added to its long list of state final appearances.

But Bogan and DePaul Prep made their first-ever trip to state, while Rockford East made its first appearance in 41 years and East St. Louis returned for the first time since Darius Miles led the Flyers there in 2000.

It’s always more of a unique feel when there are different teams and for those teams, schools and communities to experience the joys of March Madness.

Rags to riches for DePaul Prep

DePaul Prep’s performance in Friday’s Class 3A semifinal game was not indicative of its overall season’s worth of success. The lopsided loss to Bogan surely left a sour taste in the Rams’ mouth following the game.

But when it was all said and done and DePaul Prep had brought home a third-place state trophy back to the corner of Addison and California, it’s worth mentioning again how far this program has come.

The following numbers are staggering: 4-51 in Catholic League play over a seven-year stretch before Tom Kleinschmidt took over his alma mater, including 2-32 during the three years prior to his hire.

By Saturday night the Rams were holding a Class 3A third-place trophy with a Catholic League title under their belt and 25 wins on the season.

That’s a true rags-to-riches basketball story.


Loyola Academy

OK, this isn’t exactly your typical Cinderella story –– Loyola won 22 games and reached a sectional semifinal a year ago –– but in a March where there was a shortage of Cinderella-like stories, this will have to do.

By the time sectional championship matchups were established, Loyola was the lowest seeded team still alive as a No. 6 seed. The Ramblers ultimately lost to Evanston in the Niles North Sectional title game. But it wasn’t before coach Tom Livatino’s team forgot about its 3-7 finish to the regular season and rolled to a regional title and a convincing sectional semifinal win over Schaumburg.


Simeon-Brother Rice Regional Final

This one had it all –– a raucous home crowd at Brother Rice, a superstar in Marquise Kennedy putting on a show, a buzzer-beater to tie the game at the end of regulation and overtime.

Simeon escaped with the win and ultimately kept its streak of 20-plus win seasons alive with two sectional wins.

Curie-Young Sectional Final

Down one point with two seconds to play, Curie’s Damari Nixon took a pass from point guard Trevon Hamilton and drilled a three-pointer from the wing to give the Condors the dramatic win.

Curie-Simeon Super-Sectional

With the talent on the floor and the drama that unfolded –– Curie overcame a six-point deficit with 1:15 to play –– this one was special, even if it was the third time these two had met. Trevon Hamilton’s three-pointer with 20 seconds remaining completed the comeback, putting the Condors up 56-54.

Bogan-East St. Louis 3A Championship

The follow-up dunk in the closing seconds of regulation by Richard Robinson of East St. Louis to send it to overtime provided the most dramatic moment in Peoria.

Oddly, the IHSA State Finals have provided five overtime championship games in the last three years, including the East St. Louis win Saturday night. There were three overtime title games in 2017: Effingham St. Anthony over Okawville in Class 1A, Morgan Park beat Fenwick in Class 3A and Young edged Simeon in OT in Class 4A. Last year Belleville West beat Young in overtime in Class 4A.

Evanston-Belleville West 4A Championship

The final score –– Belleville West 71, Evanston 59 –– was a little closer than the score indicated. Evanston actually built a 12-point lead in the first half, the game was tied with five minutes to play and the Belleville West lead was just four points with 2:30 to play. But this game landed on this list mostly due to the high level of play these two teams showcased for four quarters.


Damari Nixon’s game-winner over Young

They don’t get any bigger than this one. Down by a point in the sectional championship in a battle between the top two seeds, Curie’s Damari Nixon drains a shot with two seconds to play to keep the top-ranked team’s season alive.


Lake Park over Benet 

In a year where there was so much balance, you would have expected a few more upsets when it came to seeded teams. This wasn’t an absolute stunner but was an upset, nonetheless.

Benet seemed to have risen to another level late in the season with wins over Stevenson, St. Viator and Notre Dame in the final two weeks of the regular season. But seventh-seeded Lake Park, a team that flew under the radar far too long, stunned No. 2 seed Benet  58-55 in the regional championship.


EJ Liddell, Belleville West

There is no other player who impacted games more than the Ohio State-bound big man. The state’s No. 1 player was sensational in the state championship game with 24 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

In the final five wins for Belleville West this March, Liddell filled the stat sheet. He averaged 20.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 5.2 blocks a game.



If you mentioned in November that the final eight teams battling one another in Class 4A super-sectionals in March would be Evanston, Stevenson, Geneva, Rockford East, Bolingbrook, Belleville West, Simeon and Curie, which one would be the biggest surprise?

Yes, Curie was way better than everyone expected. Geneva was as well. But Stevenson? No one would have guessed the Patriots would win 27 games to go with regional and sectional championships.


Hoops Report’s Class 4A picks

When the brackets and seeds came out and the regionals tipped off, the City/Suburban Hoops Report went with these picks in Class 4A …

Belleville West over Curie and Evanston over Rockford East in the state semifinals. Belleville West over Evanston in the state championship.

We won’t discuss the Hoops Report’s Class 3A semifinal picks. (0-for-4 is all we’ll say.)

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