PEORIA -- E.J. Liddell's eyes grew wide and a smile crept across his face.
Typically reserved away from the floor and completely unflappable on it, the reigning Mr. Basketball of Illinois had just been informed of the elite company that he and his Belleville West teammates joined on Saturday night.
Derrick Rose. Jabari Parker. Shaun Livingston.
All Mr. Basketball winners this century who led their programs to back-to-back IHSA state championships to close out storied IHSA careers.
Liddell and the Maroons joined the who's who of Illinois high school basketball on Saturday night as they rallied from a double-digit first-half deficit to knock off Evanston, 71-59, to claim the IHSA Class 4A state title for the second consecutive season.
Battling foul trouble and a hot start from the smaller and quicker Wildkits, Liddell and his teammates roared back to put an exclamation point on a magnificent two-year stretch. Liddell, an Ohio State commit, finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks on 10-for-12 shooting on Saturday, completely taking over the game on both ends during the second half.
Belleville West becomes the first IHSA Class 4A team to go back-to-back since Simeon and Parker ran off four straight titles (2010-13) to begin the decade.
"It's unbelievable. You name all those guys and all of those guys are in the NBA and left a great legacy on the state of Illinois. Everybody remembers their names. And I'm happy I came to Illinois and just left my name, made a mark," Liddell said.
"I'm happy and very sad at the same time. Because it's my last time in a West jersey and being coached by Coach Muniz. Back-to-back? It's unbelievable. Being in that category, leaving a mark on Belleville West. We'll have two posters in our gym that say, 'State Champions' on them and it's great. I'm ready to get my second ring."
The Maroons (34-4) earned that second ring by running through Illinois as the the clear best team in Class 4A this season. Although Belleville West experienced some regular-season slip-ups that made some question whether they could make another title run, the Maroons squashed those concerns with their play in Peoria over the weekend.
Playing with a chip on their shoulder because of Curie's status as the nationally-ranked team who was unbeaten against Illinois competition, Belleville West felt it had something to prove despite being defending champs. Running through the Condors in Friday's state semifinals with a notable double-digit win, Belleville West proved it had more on the roster than just its frontcourt superstar.
Against Evanston, senior forward Will Shumpert elevated his play -- literally and figuratively. With 21 points on Saturday night, Shumpert finished numerous dunks well above the rim as the recipient of Liddell's passes once the Evanston defense collapsed and double-teamed him. Senior guard Jaylin Mosby (15 points) also knocked down a critical three-pointer that hit the rim four times before dropping to push the Maroons' lead to 55-50 late in the game to help begin the final Belleville West push.
Seniors Lawrence Brazil III and Keith Randolph Jr., an Illinois football commit who also does significant damage in the post alongside Liddell, were also huge parts of both state title runs. With this weekend's performance, Belleville West cemented its status as one of the state's great teams of the last 25 years.
"We felt all along that the Southwestern Conference is one of the best conferences in the state of Illinois. And I think people saw that today with us and East St. Louis winning [3A]," Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said. "We play good basketball down here. And I don't think we get the respect, personally, from the people in Chicago. It's just my personal opinion. They don't ever see us play. We beat Simeon. [E.J.'s] playing on one leg and people were kind of questioning how good he is. Today answers anything."
Evanston (32-5) took it to Belleville West early behind a spaced-out, perimeter-oriented attack that saw the undersized Wildkits use their quickness. Senior Jaheim Holden took a hard foul in the game's opening minute thanks to a Liddell foul at the rim, but shook it off to finish with a team-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting. The Wildkits jumped out to a 35-25 lead with 1:36 left in the first half before Belleville West began its comeback.
Senior guard Lance Jones, a Southern Illinois commit, did most of his damage by going downhill towards the rim in the second half as he finished with 15 points for Evanston. Coming off the bench, sophomore forward Louis Lesmond did an admirable job against Liddell, while showing his vast potential for the next two seasons, as he finished with an 12 points and five rebounds. But the hot start slowed down for Evanston as its offense stalled after scoring 35 points the first 15 minutes of the game. Scoring only 24 points the final 17 minutes, Evanston finished the game shooting 4-for-24 from three-point range.
Although the Wildkits also earned state hardware for a second straight year after last season's surprising Class 4A third-place finish, the defeat to Belleville West made for an emotional send-off for the senior perimeter trio of Holden, Jones and Ryan Bost.
"You're talking about three seniors that, going into their junior year and Nojel [Eastern] leaves and we fall in supersectionals to the state champs Whitney Young, the following season they're predicted to finish fourth place out of a six-team conference," Evanston coach Mike Ellis said. "And here we are that same season finishing third in state and following that up senior year with second in state. They've gone from the coattails of Nojel to those guys doing it with the way it's supposed to be done. You've gotta respect those guys for the growth and maturation the past two seasons."
Belleville West's second straight title is an important status-symbol for St. Louis-metro area hoops in the state of Illinois. Entering the Class 3A/4A weekend, the prevailing narrative around the Chicagoland area focused on the possibility that four teams from Chicago could earn state titles after Providence-St. Mel (1A) and Orr (2A) swept the previous weekend.
The St. Louis-area teams stepped up and had something to say about that narrative with their play this weekend.
Last season, the Maroons became the first non-Chicagoland team to win a Class 4A state title. Now, with East St. Louis also grabbing the hardware in Class 3A, the 6-1-8 is becoming an increasingly potent basketball hotbed that is developing a strong reputation in both Illinois and Missouri.
Perhaps the greatest impact Belleville West and Liddell leave on Illinois is making Chicago-area basketball fans respect an area that has been overlooked for far too long.
"That shows down-south basketball is pretty good too," Liddell said. "The Chicago Public League has been great for a long time but the Southwestern Conference this year is probably the best conference in the state -- hands down."