JERSEYVILLE — The Alton Redbirds opened the Jersey Christmas Tournament in fine fashion on Wednesday.
The Birds used a strong first half to hang on and defeat McCluer North 56-50 in pool play at Jersey High. AHS improved to 5-6 on the season with the win. The Stars dropped to 4-6 after splitting a pair of games on Wednesday. North edged Carrollton 42-38 in an earlier pool play game on Wednesday.
The Redbirds return to action at noon on Thursday against Taylorville and then wrap up pool play against Carrollton at 4:30 p.m.
Despite being outscored 30-22 in the second half, Alton was able to pull out the win over the Stars due to a solid first half.
Foul trouble plagued North in the opening half, as it committed 14 team fouls. The Birds took advantage, shooting 12-of-23 (52 percent) from the free throw line over the first 16 minutes.
When Laila McNeal hit the front end of a pair of free throws at the 3:33 mark of the first quarter Alton went up 10-9 and never relinquished the lead again. They led 18-13 at the close of the opening frame.
It was senior Diarra Smith taking the reins of the Redbirds in the first half. She poured in a career-high 18 points during the opening half and really took advantage at the charity stripe where she was 8-of-12.
Her field goal at the 6:30 mark of the second quarter kick started a 7-0 run that gave the Birds a 25-16 advantage. That spree turned into a commanding 16-4 run over the remainder of the first half. Smith netted 11 of those points for Alton in the second quarter.
It left the Redbirds ahead comfortably at 34-20 entering the break. Unfortunately the Birds didn’t play as strong in the second half.
Alton still owned a 14-point advantage at 39-25 when sophomore Ivoree Lacey scored a bucket at the 4:18 mark of the third, but a 3-pointer and a 2-point field goal by Ayanna Gibson of North dwindled that to 39-30 at the 3:40 mark of the third.
A basket at the buzzer by McNeal allowed AHS to keep its lead in double figures at 44-32 at the end of the third quarter.
The Stars really started knocking on the door in the fourth quarter though. They were as close as 46-43 when Samya Johnson hit a pair of free throws with 4:17 left in the game.
That was as close as they would get though as the 6-foot Lacey converted a trio of shots in the paint for the Redbirds and fellow sophomore Rayn Tally went 4-for-5 at the free throw line over the final 1:15 of the game to help secure the victory.
Lacey scored 10 of her 16 points in the second half to compliment Smith for the Redbirds who scored all of her game-high 18 in the first half. Rayn Tally joined them in double digits with 11 points.
Other scorers for Alton included McNeal with 6, Raya Tally with 3 and Cri’Shonna Hickman with 2 points.
The Stars had 3 players reach double figures to lead them. Gibson had a team-high 14, while Johnson scored 12 and Alexus Davis netted 10.
Play continues Thursday and Friday in Jerseyville. Pool play ends Thursday with the pool winners scheduled to play for the championship at 7:30 p.m. Friday.