Classic high school basketball game rewatch: East St. Louis Lincoln vs. King (1987)

It was LaPhonso Ellis vs. Marcus Liberty in an epic showdown.

SHARE Classic high school basketball game rewatch: East St. Louis Lincoln vs. King (1987)
Marcus Liberty of Chicago King files through the air.

Marcus Liberty of Chicago King files through the air.

Sun-Times file photo

Marcus Liberty’s status heading into this 1987 Class AA state championship game was made very clear in the introductions. As the Assembly Hall PA guy announced Liberty’s name, the play-by-play man on the broadcast referred to Liberty as “The crown prince of basketball in Illinois.”

Liberty lived up to the billing in every way. The senior turned in the greatest performance in the history of big school state tournament basketball in Illinois. He set the record for most points in the Class AA tournament (143), most field goals made in the Class AA tournament (54), most points in the Class AA title game (41) and most field goals made in the Class AA title game (16).

The 41 points he scored is still the most in a title game in any big school class. Shawn Jeppson scored 51 for Spring Valley Hall in the 1997 Class A title game.

I’m too young to remember the massive amount of excitement Illinois fans must have felt knowing that Liberty was about to star on the same court for the Fighting Illini. Any Illinois fan watching the game must have been absolutely overjoyed.

But King didn’t win. The Jaguars didn’t even come close. Liberty was spectacular, but his teammates were onlookers. During the third quarter it crossed my mind that maybe Liberty was just too good for high school basketball. His teammates just tended to get out of the way and watch him. And I don’t really blame them.

East St. Louis Lincoln beat King at its own game. The Tigers opened with a dunk off the tip (an indication of King’s defensive dedication right from the start) and kept running and gunning and destroying the Jaguars with transition baskets.

LaPhonso Ellis was only a junior, but entered the game on a mountain of hype that nearly equaled Liberty.

Taylor Bell wrote a feature on Ellis days before the game:

“The first time [LaPhonso Ellis] saw him play, he drives the baseline, stuffs it and shatters the backboard - and I hadn’t been there but a minute and a half,” one Big Ten coach said.

“In terms of the total package - ability to play the game and academics - he might be the best kid I’ve ever seen - and I’ve seen a lot,” another Big Ten coach said. “He’s by far the best rebounder I’ve ever seen.”

Ellis, a 6-9, 218-pound junior, is one of the top 10 college prospects for 1988. He’s big enough and strong enough to have shattered three backboards in two years, but he also is smart enough to get an A in trigonometry and appreciate Shakespeare.

Ellis has been the most dominant force on Lincoln’s 21-1 team. He averages 20 points, 20 rebounds and nine blocked shots per game.

In December, he set a Collinsville tournament record with 27 blocked shots in three games. The previous record was eight.

That season average stat line is incredible. 20/20/9? Wow.

Some other tidbits:

-The 1987 state tournament was considered an attendance flop at the time. The Class AA tournament attracted 39,939 spectators for four sessions, which was the second-lowest attendance figure since the two-class format was introduced in 1972. The Class A tournament attendance of 41,488 was the lowest in the event’s history. Hotel prices in Champaign were seen as the culprit.

-Illinois coach Lou Henson and Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, both recruiting Ellis, were seen sitting together. Loyola’s Gene Sullivan and SIU’s Rich Herrin were there too. Get this: That was a shocking surprise. Apparently it was tradition that no college coaches were invited to the state tournament, other than the Illinois coach. I had no idea.

The starting lineups:

F Marcus Liberty (30), 6-8 Sr.
F Johnny Selvie (20), 6-6 Fr.
C Richard Smith (31), 6-7 Sr.
G Jamie Brandon (23), 6-3 Fr.
G Carl Stanley (14), 5-10 Jr.

East St. Louis Lincoln
F James Harris (22)
F Chris Rodgers (42)
C LaPhonso Ellis (50), 6-9, Jr.
G Rodney Chavis (10)
G Mark Chambers (14)

Watch it all and read Taylor Bell’s game story from March 22, 1987:

King loses crown despite Liberty’s 41


CHAMPAIGN — Three against one is tough to beat in basketball, demolition derbies and muggings.

The odds were even too much for King’s Marcus Liberty to overcome last night in the IHSA Class AA championship before 10,280 fans at Assembly Hall.

Liberty scored 41 points, setting a Class AA record with 143 in four games, but East St. Louis Lincoln won 79-62. Lincoln’s victory ended King’s season at 28-5 and spoiled its bid to become the first large school to win back-to-back titles since Thornridge in 1971-72.

Liberty was brilliant, scoring 18 points in the third quarter in a desperate attempt to rally his team from a 17-point halftime deficit.

Lincoln’s front line was overpowering and intimidating as 6-9 junior LaPhonso Ellis had 27 points and 10 rebounds, 6-8 James Harris had 23 points and 6-7 Chris Rodgers had 13 points and 13 rebounds. The Tigers (27-1), who won their second state title in six years, shot 61 percent (36-of-59).

“We were really jacked up to prove to everybody that we were the best team,” Rodgers said.

“We played as well as we could play,” King coach Landon Cox said. “I think East St. Louis Lincoln has a marvelous team. But I think Collins was better. Lincoln was just bigger.”

“I think we were too hyper for the game,” said Liberty, who shot 16-of-33, made 9-of-13 free throws and had 15 rebounds. “We came out taking too many quick shots and we didn’t get back on defense.”

East St. Louis Lincoln, which lost to Lincoln (a Downstate school near Springfield) in the final of the Collinsville holiday tournament, rushed to a 9-0 lead in the first 4:30 as King missed its first seven shots.

King fell behind 14-2 before Liberty triggered a comeback that forged a tie at 15 early in the second period. But Liberty didn’t get any help.

Ellis, one of the nation’s most prized underclassmen, and Harris took charge as Lincoln stormed to a 41-24 halftime lead.

Despite Liberty’s third-quarter flurry, King never recovered.

“We knew what we had to do and we went with that game plan and it worked,” Lincoln coach Bennie Lewis said. “We wanted to see if they could run with us and they couldn’t.

“We had a little lapse in the second quarter but came back from it. We just took it to them and they couldn’t stop us. We knew Marcus Liberty would get his points but we held everyone else down. We played just the way we planned it.

“Any time a team plays the same kind of game we play, we feel we have the superior athletes. You’ve got to be mighty, mighty tough to run with us.”

“I wasn’t surprised how we jumped out on them,” said Harris, a quarterback who will attend Temple on a football scholarship. “We’ve been anxious to play another run-and-gun team all year. Run-and-gun is our game. We might turn the ball over 14 times but we’ll continue to get our baskets.”

“We felt they were a one-man team,” said Rodgers, who is committed to enroll at Creighton. “We felt they weren’t ready for our tight press and our well-balanced attack. I was really surprised how we were able to get the ball inside so easily against them.”

Liberty was impressed by Ellis and sought him out after the game, saying: “Make sure you visit Illinois.”

“I guess they had so many more trees than we had,” Liberty said. “They had me changing and altering my shot. Every time I went up, I seemed to have somebody else’s hand in my face. It was difficult to put up my normal shot.

“I saw Ellis play in the first two games and he didn’t look that impressive. But he really turned his game up a notch and his coach must have told him something to play the way he did against us tonight.”

Cox conceded Lincoln “beat us up under the boards” but complained “we didn’t get a call all night. They did a hatchet job on my freshman (6-5 Johnny Selvie) and wouldn’t give us a call. They finally started calling something late in the fourth quarter but the damage was already done.”

But, as Cox has often reminded, who can remember the last time a team advanced to the state finals with two freshman starters? The odds of pulling it off, even with Marcus Liberty, were simply too long.

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