“I looked at coach, seeing if he was going to call a timeout,” the Redbirds’ Kevin Caldwell Jr. said. “It didn’t look like he was going to call it. He just gave me that look, like, make a play.”
Caldwell did, rising up for a NBA-range 3-pointer with two seconds left that delivered the Alton Redbirds a dramatic 64-61 victory over the Mundelein Carmel Corsairs at the Centralia Holiday Tournament.
The victory sends the 9-1 Redbirds to the semifinals of the 75th annual tourney to play top-seeded Belleville West at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The Maroons survived a scare from St. Louis Confluence Prep 65-63 in Friday’s second quarterfinal.
The Corsairs, who fall to 7-4, were poised to celebrate their upset when Jonathan Roeser split the Redbirds defense for a layup that put Alton down 61-59 with 10 seconds remaining.
The Redbirds opted for Caldwell rather than timeout. The senior, who beat Belleville East on a similar shot last season, brought the ball upcourt and, before the defense could engage, launched a 3 from well beyond the top of the key to win it.
“I can shoot from that far,” Caldwell assured. “If felt right at the time to pull up. He didn’t have his hands up, so I pulled up and took the risk. … When it’s in the fourth quarter, I just try to come through for my teammates.”
Alton coach Eric Smith was not necessarily looking for Caldwell to make that particular play, just “for him to make the right play,” Smith said. “He’s done that quite a few times for us. If somebody was open, he would throw them the ball. But he made a play.”
Carmel was out of timeouts, but Roeser was emphatically signaling for time after Caldwell’s shot was good. The clock ran out, but officials convened, put 1.7 seconds back on the clock, awarded the timeout but assessed a technical that gave Alton two free throws that Caldwell missed.
Alton’s Donovan Clay was fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass and converted both free throws to account for the final three-point margin after Carmel’s half-court 3 sailed over the backboard.
Caldwell led the Redbirds with 15 points. Josh Rivers scored 13 points, Malik Smith had 12, and Darrell Smith and Ahmad Sanders both added nine points for Alton. Caldwell was just 4 of 14 from the field, including 1 of 6 from the arc, before nailing the game-winner. “When it mattered, he made a shot,” Eric Smith said.
Alton led 34-28 at halftime, but the Corsairs produced 10 points from their first four possessions of the third quarter to take a 38-36 lead less than two minutes into the quarter. Carmel’s Evan Myers made four 3-pointers and scored 14 of his 16 points in the third quarter. Kimahri Wilson, a 5-foot-11 freshman, led the Corsairs with 18 points and eight rebounds. He had 11 points in the opening quarter.
“They battled and they fought, they ran good stuff that gave us a little bit of trouble in some aspects,” Eric Smith said of the Corsairs. “We’ve got to get better at some things. But we just keep finding a way to win games. … What it just comes down to is that we keep talking about our kids’ resiliency.
“Everybody keeps trying to figure out how we’re 9-1. The answer is, we’ve got tough, resilient kids.”
Now, the Redbirds’ face a challenge unlike any from their first 10 games when they meet West in the semifinals. The Maroons are 10-1 and ranked No. 4 in the Class 4A state poll.
“You play good teams like that,” Caldwell said, “you see how good you are and where you stand.”
Alton’s first game after the holidays will bring West to Alton High on Jan. 5 with first place in the Southwestern Conference standings on the line. Playing the Maroons before that SWC showdown is not a concern for the Redbirds coach.
“Game’s a game,” Smith said. “These kids don’t care. They just want to lace them up and go play.”