Boys Varsity Basketball
Rivers delivers ‘big shot’ as Alton takes down No. 2-ranked West
Alton beats West on Rivers’ 3 at buzzer
Greg Shashack, firstname.lastname@example.org
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GODFREY – The play was designed to make Donovan Clay the hero.
But a fortunate bounce and a hurried, off-balance 3-pointer from the top of the key as the horn sounded left Josh Rivers in that coveted role Wednesday night at Alton High.
“Big shot,” Rivers said, “big win.”
A trey after an offensive rebound off Clay’s missed baseline 3 found Rivers at the top of the key and triggered a wild on-court celebration after the Alton Redbirds stunned the Belleville West Maroons 44-43 in a Southwestern Conference boys basketball game.
“I was just hoping it went in,” Rivers said. “And it went in. This is a great feeling.”
The victory was the 20th of the season for the Redbirds, who take a 20-10 record, including a 7-4 SWC mark, into Friday’s regular-season finale back here against O’Fallon. West, the defending Class 4A state champion, drops to 26-4 and 9-3 in the league.
“Like I told our kids, whether we won that game or lost that game, I’d have been happy we won only because we won the game,” West coach Joe Muniz said. “That’s about all you can say. I’m just really disappointed in our kids. We didn’t play well tonight. We had everything going in our direction. We got Clay in foul trouble and they’re down 10. And we lost our heads a little bit.”
Josh Rivers’ game-winning 3 left him as the only Redbird to reach double digits with 10 points. Clay, who missed more than six minutes of the second half with four fouls, scored nine points and Andrew Jones had eight points for Alton. West got 12 points from Will Shumpert and 10 from both E.J. Liddell and Keith Randolph.
A two-point second quarter left the Redbirds trailing 18-12 at halftime. The Maroons were up by as many as 10 points in the third quarter before taking a 33-24 lead to the fourth quarter.
But after a dysfunctional opening half on offense for Alton, the Redbirds outscored West 20-10 in the fourth quarter.
“We told the kids the whole game, we didn’t think effort was an issue,” Alton coach Eric Smith said. “I thought we played our tails off. But offensively, for the first half, that might have been as bad as we’ve been in the time that I’ve been here. We had no ball movement, we had no player movement. Guys, I think because of the moment, were trying to do too much, they wanted to be the guy to score. And that’s not a good recipe for us. We’re really, really good when we share the ball.”
The “really, really good” Redbirds debuted in the second half and took down the state’s No. 2-ranked team in Class 4A in the final eight minutes.
“We shot, what 15 3s in the first half,” asked Smith, whose team made just one 3-pointer in the first half before knocking down four in the fourth quarter. “We shot a ton of 3s in the first half and they were contested, they weren’t off paint touches. In the second half, we got more stuff going to the rim.”
That better ball movement brought Jones’ 3-pointer, Ky’lun Rivers’ layup off a Moory Woods’ steal, and 3-pointers from Josh Rivers and Randy Butler to draw the Redbirds even at 35-35 with 5:25 remaining to cap an 11-2 Alton run.
The Maroons would twice regain leads of four points – at 39-35 with 4:44 left and 42-38 with 2:59 left – but could not close out the Redbirds, who were without second-leading scorer Malik Smith for a third straight game. He is expected to return for next week’s regional at Collinsville.
The SWC loss was the third in the last five league games for West, which will be denied its first back-to-back SWC titles since 2003-04. East St. Louis has clinched hte conference crown.
“We’ve lost leads like this before, but we’ve always found a way to win,” Muniz said. “The last three games, we haven’t found a way to win. The ball’s not bounced our way. Earlier in the season, the ball was bouncing our way, but we’re still playing the same way. Now we have to learn from our mistakes and get better. I’m just hoping our guys will get into practice tomorrow and work on getting better.”
The Redbirds converted just 2 of 5 free throws in the final 3:22 to get within 42-41. West’s Tommie Williams made the front end of a one-and-one with 32 seconds remaining to make it 43-41.
Alton held for one shot and a West deflection gave Alton the ball at midcourt with 8.2 seconds left. And after a Redbirds’ timeout, Clay’s 3 contested by West’s 6-foot-7 E.J. Liddell was off target and Rivers converted the put back from 20 feet to win it.
“Good players make good plays,” Eric Smith said. “Josh made a heck of a play. Sometimes, it’s nice to have the ball bounce the way you want it to.”
The victory ended the Redbirds’ seven-game losing streak vs. the Maroons, who had pulled out hotly contested wins over Alton 62-57 on Dec. 29 in the title game at the Centralia Tourney and 61-55 on Jan. 4 in Belleville.
Now, the Maroons have little time – they close the regular season Friday at home against Granite City – to regroup before starting defense of their state title in next week’s regional at West. The Maroons were hoping to be sharpened rathen than dulled by a schedule that may have been the most daunting every faced by a SWC squad.
“It was the toughest schedule, probably, that ever’s been played around here,” Muniz said of a slate that included teams from nine states. “But these kids are good basketball players. We’re a good basketball team. I think our kids are playing against a lot of great teams. And I think Alton’s a great team, I think Collinsville’s a great team, I think East St. Louis is a great team. I think every team in our Southwestern Conference is a great team, there are no nights off.
“Our guys have to figure out a way to pull through this. We have yet to play a complete team game, where we have all five guys clicking, where we’re moving the ball. We did a lot of standing tonight. I don’t know. I know this, if we don’t get our guts up and get going, it will be a short postseason.”