SPRINGFIELD, MO -- The Irish knew this would be the greatest test of the 2018/2019 season. After starting off the season with a school-record 16 consecutive wins, the team would face off against one of the nation's top teams. On Wednesday, January 9th; the Tournament of Champions brackets were released and the Irish found out that they would face the McEachern Indians of Powder Springs, Georgia. McEachern came into this tournament as the #2 team in the country after winning the illustrious City of Palms championship by 21 points.
The Irish started the contest and were overwhelmed out of the gate. The speed of the front court and size of the big men were immediately noticeable and it didn't help that the Indians were on fire from the field making their first three three-pointers. The Irish wouldn't score their first field goal until the 3:00 mark of the first quarter.
McEachern continued their defensive pressure and ended the first half up 50-13. The Irish settled in a bit and chiseled away 16 in the third and 13 in the fourth but ultimately fell to the Indians 75-42.
In the second game entering the consolation side of the bracket, the opponent did not seem to drop off much. Belleville West had entered the tournament with a record of 17-0 and were reigning Illinois 4A State Champions. The Maroons were led by the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year and Ohio State commit, EJ Liddell. Liddell was also the reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball, only the second non-senior to win the award in the 38 years of the award.
The Irish started off the game and it looked a little like the opening game against McEachern, digging a 10-1 hole out of the gate. But a well-timed time out seemed to settle the Irish down and Jake Branham knocked down the first field goal of the game. The Irish slowly settled into the game and ended the first quarter down just 5, 15-10. The Irish continued to battle in the second running an effective 2-3 zone against the Maroons. SCHS brought it as close as two in the quarter but the Maroons answered and stretched the lead to 10 ending the half 34-24.
The Irish came out in the third and began working on their 10-point deficit. The boys forced multiple turnovers and Belleville sat EJ Liddell and Will Shumpert with foul trouble. By the 4-minute mark the lead was cut to 1. Feeling the pressure, the Maroons answered and stretched the lead to 9 before ending the 3rd quarter 49-44.
The Irish took their momentum and confidence into the 4th. Jake Branham and Zach Howell each knocked down three-pointers and Ben Galligos made an impressive steal leading to another Irish fast break, tying the game in the process at 52 with 5:00 remaining. The Maroons called timeout and seemed to re-group but their momentum was stopped with a controversial 5th foul on star EJ Liddell at the 3:09 mark. The Irish once again clawed back into game with a Mike Manzardo layup and two trips to the free-throw line from Jake Branham. With less than a minute left, the Irish found themselves down two to the nationally ranked Maroons. The Irish unfortunately could not close the gap, receiving three fouls in the final seconds. Belleville extended their two point lead to 6 and the game ended 63-57. The loss would send the Irish to the 7th place game agains fellow local team Parkview.
The Irish game against Parkview peaked the curiosity of local fans. Many wrote Parkview off after losing star Tyem Freeman to a torn ACL in December. While Parkview took some lumps along the way, it didn't show in the ToC. The Viking faced a formidable Memphis East in the opening round, losing to the Mustangs 55-41. The Vikings then faced #14 ranked Rainier Beach and battled the fellow Vikings throughout the game. Parkview even held the lead in the 3rd quarter but Rainier exploded with a 30-point 4th quarter to win 75-46.
The Irish got off to a slow start against Parkview and the Vikings took advantage, shooting 5/6 from beyond the arc and dropping 23 points in the opening quarter. The Irish didn't help their cause committing 8 turnovers. The Irish D settled in a bit in the second and limited their turnovers. Their shooting was still cold and Catholic left the floor down 37-23 at the half.
The Irish slowly started to chisel away at the Viking lead, cutting the 14 point lead to 11 to begin the 4th. The hot shooting Vikings cooled off, not making a single 3-point basket in the 3rd. The 4th quarter saw the Irish continue the pressure, and their shots started to drop. The 11-point Viking lead was eliminated by the 5:00 mark with a pivotal offensive rebound by Tyson Riley and three point bucket by Charlie O'Reilly. The Irish broke the tie with 4:12 remaining and kept the Vikings at bay by converting 13 of 14 free throws down the stretch. The 16 point deficit was the largest to be overcome during the season.
After a shaky start to the team's inaugural Tournament of Champion appearance, the boys left this tournament with a renewed confidence that they deserved to be there and could compete with the top teams in the state and even the country.
The Irish move to 17-2 and will face Republic at home on Tuesday, January 22nd.