PEORIA -- Belleville West finished an undefeated IHSA boys basketball campaign on Saturday night by capturing the Class 4A state title with a memorable 60-56 overtime win over defending champion Whitney Young.
An intense back-and-forth contest that delighted fans at Carver Arena, the Maroons held off the Dolphins as junior forward and Mr. Basketball candidate E.J. Liddell finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
The state title matchup between the St. Louis metro powerhouse and the Chicago Public League superpower somehow lived up to the immense hype. But perhaps more important than the game itself was the significance of the outcome. Saturday's win for Belleville West also served as an important passing of the torch.
For the first time since Shaun Livingston and Peoria High went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, the largest IHSA boys basketball state title won't be going home to a team from the Chicagoland area.
Class 4A has been dominated by Chicago-area teams every year since four-class basketball came into existence during the 2007-08 season. And after Livingston and Peoria's two-year run, Jon Scheyer (Glenbrook North) and Derrick Rose (Simeon) swept through Peoria and won three straight titles to close out the two-class basketball era in Illinois.
For the last 13 years, the biggest, and most important, state title in basketball-crazy Illinois has gone to a team from the Chicagoland area. A legendary run of talents from the area saw players like Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Jalen Brunson win state championships.
Liddell and Belleville West knocking off a Public League powerhouse, and defending state champion, for a state title is a significant moment in IHSA basketball history. It's the first time the Class 4A boys basketball state title is going somewhere besides the Chicagoland area.
While Class 3A has seen some memorable state title runs from teams outside of Chicago like Belleville Althoff and Rock Island, the more-depleted Class 3A field is generally considered an afterthought for many Illinois high school basketball fans.
By going undefeated against IHSA competition this season and beating a team like Whitney Young for a state title, Belleville West established legitimate credibility that should be respected all over the state. Chicago area high school fans can be fickle about downstate teams and their stars. None of those doubts should be apparent for Belleville West after the way they dominated the 2017-18 season.
Since Liddell is only a junior, and many of the Maroons' top players are also returning, it also sets up the possibility that Belleville West is the favorite for the Class 4A state title entering the 2018-19 season. Things have dramatically changed in the world of high school basketball. Transfers can change anything overnight. But given the return of Liddell, and the loss of only three seniors, the Maroons could have staying power next year as well.
It sets up for a fascinating offseason and an intriguing subplot for Class 4A next season as everyone will be chasing Liddell and Belleville West. And if Liddell pulls off the win and beats Simeon's Talen Horton-Tucker and Morgan Park's Ayo Dosunmu for Mr. Basketball in Illinois then the pressure will be that much greater.
The Chicago Public League will still be the epicenter of high school boys basketball in Illinois next season. Orr and Morgan Park are coming off of back-to-back state titles. Whitney Young just missed joining them. Simeon was nationally ranked nearly all season. Curie remains an imposing threat only two years removed from its own Class 4A state title. There's a depth and quality of teams in the Public League that is unmatched anywhere else in the state.
But, for right now, that Public League's depth doesn't mean a thing. It's an afterthought. Because the Class 4A state title in Illinois high school basketball is heading south to Belleville. And it might not be leaving there for another year or two.