Mission impossible? Larkin accepting the challenge
Some call it mission impossible.
The Larkin boys basketball team chooses to accept it.
Few outside the city of Elgin expect Larkin (24-8) to beat Belleville West (30-2) in a Class 4A semifinal at Carver Arena in Peoria on Friday at 5:30 p.m.
Observers favor the Maroons for several reasons, the most prominent being EJ Liddell. The 6-foot-7, 228-pound junior was recently named Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year.
Liddell has more big-time college offers than the Kardashians have TV shows. Such is life for a unique talent averaging 20.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6 blocks a game. He was named first-team all-state Thursday Associated Press.
Talented as Liddell is, he's hardly a one-man team.
Senior Malachi Smith is committed to Wright State. Considered the team's best defender by 14th-year Belleville West coach Joe Muniz, the 6-foot-3 guard averages 15.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists.
Then there's big, athletic junior Keith Randolph. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound forward played football for the first time last fall. He now holds 10 Division-I offers to play defensive end, including Illinois and Wyoming. He contributes 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Junior guard Lawrence Brazil (5-11) averages 10.5 points. He netted 19 in a sectional final victory. Senior guard Curtis Williams (5-11) rounds out the starting five. He adds 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per outing.
The impressive collection of talent has blown out five straight playoff opponents by a 26-point average, including Tuesday's 81-43 takedown of previously hot West Aurora, which had won 17 straight.
"They've got several Division-I athletes, but we're not going to go out there and back down," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. "We're not going to go out there and change the way we play. Although, we may be the underdog in a lot of guys' eyes, we're going to prepare to win, and that's going to be our anticipation. But we know we're going to have to execute the game plan at a high level to do that."
Larkin's offensive game plan in recent weeks has emphasized running the ball through 6-foot-10 senior forward Jalen Shaw.
"He's somebody we haven't faced all season, somebody of that size," Muniz said.
Shaw averaged 14.3 points in Larkin's first four playoff wins, but he was limited to 5 points on 2-of-9 shooting in Tuesday's supersectional victory over Benet Academy. Still, he affected how the game was played. Offensively, his kick out passes to the perimeter helped junior guard Pierre Black get open for 3-pointers, which, in turn, created driving lanes for other Larkin guards. On the defensive end Shaw blocked 2 shots, made 2 steals and grabbed 9 of his 11 rebounds.
"Once he realized that his teammates were committed to getting him the ball on almost every possession, I think it helped him relax and understand that 'OK, when I catch it, I don't have to score it for us to be a good team,' " Carter said. "So, it was twofold. It was, one, him just mentally kind of making the shift. I also think it was him realizing and the rest of his teammates realizing that he needed to touch it even if he wasn't going to score. It was a two-way street for sure."
The plan to get the ball in Shaw's hands on nearly every possession won't change with Liddell and Randolph looming.
"I understand they've got really good post players, but we're going to throw the ball to Jalen," Carter said. "I mean, he's going to get it, he's going to get it, he's going to get it. We're going to play through him and we'll take our chances by doing that."
Smith will likely draw the defensive assignment against Larkin leading scorer Anthony Lynch. In 5 playoff victories, the 6-3, 180-pound senior guard has scored 23, 15, 28, 24 and 16 points, respectively. He enters the state finals averaging 20 points, 5 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
"He's a pretty good player," Muniz said of Lynch. "They're going to be a good team. We're going to expect a tough game. Those two players are very nice and they've got some nice pieces to go around them. We're going to have to make sure we're ready to play and learn how to play against some size like that."
Larkin senior point guard Kindrel "Nomo" Morris is one of the "nice pieces" Muniz referenced. The three-year varsity player and tri-captain along with Lynch and Shaw averages 6.5 points and a team-best 6.2 assists.
"Morris is our engine. He makes us go," Carter said. "If we're a car, Morris is the engine, Shaw is the leather interior and Lynch is the fancy paint and fancy gadgets in the car.
"Without Morris we wouldn't be here. He's the heart and soul of the team. He's the toughest kid we've got. He does everything we ask of him and he's the leader. He's going to have to do big things for us Friday night."