Blue Devils carry confidence into regional rematch with Redbirds

By MATT SCHUCKMAN
Herald-Whig Sports Editor

Quincy High School boys basketball coach Sean Taylor can tell you the Blue Devils are a vastly different team than when they played Alton nearly two months ago.

But the numbers illustrate it.

Since the 57-40 loss to the Redbirds at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, the Blue Devils have gone 9-3. They finished second in the Western Big Six Conference, winning seven of their final eight league games.

And after allowing three straight opponents to score 55 or more points, Quincy has allowed just one of its last 12 foes to hit that mark.

In fact, the last 12 opponents have averaged only 44.5 points. The first 13 opponents this season averaged 52.1 points.

So it’s safe to say this team is vastly different.

“In every key facet, we’re better,” Taylor said. “It’s because they’ve worked hard. I know a lot of people say that, but this group made it their goal to get better and become a factor. They’ve done that.”

Wednesday night, the Blue Devils get to showcase how far they’ve come.

Third-seeded Quincy (14-11) faces second-seeded Alton (22-5) in the semifinals of the Class 4A Quincy Regional at Blue Devil Gym. The Redbirds took advantage of the Blue Devils’ struggles defensively in the first meeting, building a 13-point halftime lead as Quincy stuggled to contain dribble penetration.

After that loss, Quincy dumped the traditional man-to-man defense in favor of a 1-2-2 zone and the results speak for themselves.

“We’re playing as well as we have all year,” Taylor said. “All the guys in the rotation are playing well.”

They will need to in order to combat Alton’s quickness and quick-strike ability. The Redbirds rebounded from back-to-back losses to Belleville East and Edwardsville by beating Belleville West and O’Fallon to close the regular season.

It helped having guard Mike Williams-Bey back in the lineup. Despite missing a couple game with an injury, Williams-Bey averages 14.5 points and nearly three steals per game.

He is one of four Redbirds averaging in double figures.

“Like Rocky, they’re quick at every spot,” Taylor said. “They really come after you. They don’t have any defensive liabilities and guard at every position. So you have to be sound making passes from point A to point B.”

But there can be gaps in Alton’s defense.

“You have to have confidence to see it and go after it,” Taylor said.

Right now, few times are playing with as much confidence as the Blue Devils, which makes Taylor believe anything is possible.

— mschuckman@whig.com/221-3366

Blue Devils dismantle Class 2A’s second-ranked team to complete weekend sweep

By DON O’BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Should the Quincy High School boys basketball team go on to reach some lofty heights this season, the Blue Devils may look to this weekend as the point where it all started.

A night after pulling off a thrilling win over Western Big Six Conference foe Moline, the Blue Devils dismantled one of Class 2A’s best teams on Saturday night. Quincy forced Monmouth-Roseville into 26 turnovers and dominated the middle two quarters of the non-conference game for a 63-43 victory at Blue Devil Gym.

The win pulled the Blue Devils even at 8-8 ahead of an eight-game finishing kick to the regular season, which will feature five games at the friendly confines of Blue Devil Gym. Quincy has settled into a nice playing rotation as each of the nine players in that rotation have grown comfortable with what’s expected from them.

“We’ve been improving since day 1,” said QHS coach Sean Taylor “I’ve been trying to tell people that we lost four starters from last year who played a majority of the minutes. We have a whole new team this year and they weren’t going to be great out of the blocks, but they’ve continued to work and they’re starting to play really well and know what their roles are and are playing their roles to a very high level.”

Just as it did in the win over Moline, defense was a big reason for the Blue Devils’ success against the Titans (14-2). After a bit of a slow start that saw Quincy trailing 13-12 after one quarter, the Blue Devils buckled down on defense in the second quarter. They limited the Titans to a lot of one-shot possessions. A 9-0 scoring run early in the quarter gave Quincy the lead, which grew to 31-21 by the halftime break.

In the third quarter, Quincy forced 11 Titans turnovers and Monmouth-Roseville made just 2 of 11 shots. As a result, the Blue Devils outscored the Titans 18-4 in the quarter to take a commanding 49-25 lead going into the fourth quarter.

“We put a lot of emphasis on our defense,” senior Zach Burry said. “Coach tells us that’s where we have to get our points. Our goal is to keep them under 50 because we’re not a high-scoring team. If we can keep them under 50 and cause a little havoc, then we have a really good chance to win the game.”

Taylor liked how the Blue Devils were able to turn that defense into offense in the third quarter.

“They were trying to extend (their defense), and we did a nice job of getting some run outs,” Taylor said. “Connor Mellon did a nice job of running the court. Our guys had their heads up and we got some easy layups and made them pay the price for trying to extend.”

Mellon powered his way to 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting and added a team-high eight rebounds. He was most impressed with the Blue Devils’ effort inside their zone defense. In addition to the 26 turnovers QHS forced, the Blue Devils got their hands on at least a half dozen passes that disrupted the Titans’ flow.

“We use anticipation to our advantage,” Mellon said. “We’re ready, we’re watching that ball and we’re on our toes. We’re getting really good at that defense. Those tips and deflections are what our defense is about. You might get a steal. The offense might get a little intimidated and say, ‘Oh, I can’t get that ball through there.'”

Titans coach Chuck Grant didn’t know what to make out of what he saw Saturday night.

“I never dreamed of coming down here and getting beat by 20,” he said. “That’s no disrespect at all to Sean and his kids. But the way we’ve been playing and the way we prepped, I thought we had three fabulous practices and I walked out of the gym last night thinking that this is as well as we prepped all year. I certainly didn’t expect this.”

Burry led the way for Quincy by scoring 22 points. Everyone in uniform played for Quincy and nine different players scored. Dillon Frieden had 14 points, while Martel Hunter added 12 to lead Monmouth-Roseville.

The Blue Devils, winners of three straight, will return to action Friday at Rock Island Alleman.

“The goal in the beginning (of the season) was to give a lot of people a lot of playing time and then around this time we’ll see where we can put them in and refine our roles,” Taylor said. “We are staring to do that and they’re starting to get really comfortable in what we want them to do.”

— dobrien@whig.com/221-3370

Blue Devils remain confident they can challenge for title

Quincy High School senior point guard Martin Kvitle and the second-seeded Blue Devils will look to change the tide of their season by knocking out third-seeded Alton in Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. semifinal of the Class 4A Granite City Regional.

(H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)

By MATT SCHUCKMAN
Herald-Whig Sports Editor

Mason Fairley answered with the confidence you’d expect from a starting guard on a Quincy High School boys basketball team that won 11 straight games at one point this season.

The ironic thing is the streak is a distant memory.

Just like first place in the Western Big Six Conference.

Just like the perception this team could give top-seeded Edwardsville a challenge in the Class 4A Granite City Regional.

Yet, Fairley remains confident the Blue Devils can be a contender despite all that has gone wrong in recent weeks.

“We’ve never lost our confidence,” Fairley said last week. “We believe in each other, and we believe we can win. No one in here is thinking any different.”

Hearing that gives Quincy coach Sean Taylor hope that what he sees isn’t misleading.

Taylor said he liked many of the things the Blue Devils did during their season-ending 61-47 loss at Rock Island last Friday night and has always felt this team will fight to the finish.

The challenge is cleaning up the defensive breakdowns and the offensive inconsistency that led to losses in five of Quincy’s final six games.

“We can’t play from behind,” Taylor said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. Our defense has to dig in and get stops and not allow teams to get the better of us.

“If we can buckle down and get stops and make teams work to score, we’ll be OK. We have to play with the lead and put the pressure on someone else. Too often lately we’ve been putting the pressure on ourselves.”

Well, the pressure is on Quincy’s experienced backcourt to give the Blue Devils an edge.

Martin Kvitle leads Quincy in scoring at 15.7 points per game and has been the best threat from the perimeter, knocking down 32 3-pointers. Still, he’s the only player averaging in double figures.

Fairley’s increased production has upped his scoring average to 7.2 points per game. No one else averages more than six points per game,

“We have to take it upon ourselves to get it done,” Kvitle said. “Mason and I have to lead this team with our effort and our intensity. Yeah, we need to score, but we need to play better defense and give more effort.

“There is nothing more to play for after this. I don’t want to regret not giving us every chance to win in the postseason.”

Taylor fully expects Kvitle and the rest of the Blue Devils to do that.

“The best thing about coaching this group is you know they are going to show up to work and give you their best effort,” Taylor said. “We’ve had some struggles, but they keep fighting. I fully expect them to fight until the final buzzer.”

2 Wins Over the Weekend

0128139095406_largeGet out the shears

Quincy High School senior point guard Martin Kvitle the first 16 games with a crop of curly hair that was a stark contrast to the shaved head he had as a junior.

After beating Rock Island to wrap up the first half of the Western Big Six Conference, it was time to bring the shaved look back.

“To be honest, it was getting annoying,” Kvitle said. “I could feel it in my ears and see it out of my periphery. That’s when I knew it was time to shave it.”

So gone were the curly locks. Unlike Samson, though, Kvitle didn’t lose any strength. In fact, his shot may have improved.

Kvitle knocked down five 3-pointers against Hinsdale South and then followed by going 4 of 9 combined from 3-point range in victories against United Township and Champaign Central. Kvitle finished the weekend with 24 points against UT and 15 against Central.

Combined, he went 14 of 26 from the field and 7 of 9 from the free-throw line while racking up four assists and three steals.

“It’s just better this way,” Kvitle said, shaking his head at the fact he was asked about his haircut.

Spark off the bench

Cole Abbey’s mindset didn’t change much when Quincy High School boys basketball coach Sean Taylor decided to bring the 6-foot senior guard off the bench in victories over United Township and Champaign Central.

“I’ve got to do my part,” Abbey said.

He did just that. Abbey scored 10 first-half points, picked up two steals and helped the Blue Devils some separation in the second quarter that led to a 60-49 victory over Champaign Central. Abbey finished with 14 points, three rebounds and two steals.

“If my part is to play defense and get steals, I have to do that,” Abbey said. “If Coach wants me to drive the ball, I’ll do that.”

What Taylor wants is for Abbey to play with energy, effort and intelligence. He did that in the weekend sweep, going for seven points with one rebound, one steal and one dunk against the Panthers.

And Abbey had no problems getting energized to play, even if he wasn’t starting.

“Last year, I came off the bench,” Abbey said. “So I’m used to it.”

It’s the right attitude to have.

“He played some fantastic minutes,” Kvitle said. “He wanted to play, and you could tell he wanted to play.”

Fly swatter

Early against Champaign Central, Quincy forward Jason Salrin was whistled for a foul as he contested the shot of the Maroons’ Xavier Martin. It could have limited Salrin’s aggressiveness.

It didn’t.

Instead, Salrin, a 6-foot-7 senior made it extremely difficult for the Maroons to get to the basket, blocking a career-high six shots and establishing himself as an intimidating presence with his help-side defense. He also had one block against United Township.

“He cleaned everything up,” Taylor said.

A nice touch

Taylor has said the Blue Devils need Zach Burry to make shots, especially from the perimeter. Well, he’s knocking down more than just 3-pointers and giving the Blue Devils a lift in the process.

Burry had 12 points against UT and six more against Champaign Central, hitting four 3-pointers in the process. However, he also knocked down a pair of fadeaway jumpers and showed the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He has now scored six or more points in five of the last six games, going for double digits twice.

“He’s playing better than I’ve ever seen him play,” Kvitle said. “I knew he could play like this. It goes back to confidence.”

Shot at 20

With six regular-season games remaining, the Blue Devils (15-4) have a shot at reaching the 20-win plateau before the postseason begins. It would be quite an accomplishment. In Taylor’s first nine seasons as head coach, the Blue Devils have won at least 20 games four times, but the 2006-07 team was the only one to reach 20 victories in the regular season. That team won 16 of its final 17 regular-season games and finished with a 23-6 record overall.

UT Game

0128139095739_largeBy MATT SCHUCKMAN
Herald-Whig Sports Editor

There are times Quincy High School boys basketball coach Sean Taylor takes the classroom to the court.

When he does, he likes to use Larry Bird as a reference point.

It seems to work.

“He brings up the Bird quote where he walked in for the (All-Star Game) 3-point contest and says, ‘Who’s playing for second?'” Quincy point guard Martin Kvitle said. “That’s the way we’re going to play.”

Friday night, it’s exactly how the Blue Devils came out of the locker room to start the second half.

Quincy opened the third quarter on a 12-2 run, getting eight straight points from Kvitle and riding the momentum to a 62-52 Western Big Six Conference victory over United Township at Blue Devil Gym.

“We’re going to come into every game thinking, ‘You’re going to lose,'” said Kvitle, who went 10 of 17 from the field and scored a game-high 24 points. “We know it’s not going to come just by coming in and showing up. We’re going to have to play hard and blue collar. Everybody has the confidence.”

They put it on display.

The Blue Devils (14-4, 6-0 WB6) enjoyed one of the best offensive nights of the season, shooting 57.1 percent from the field (24 of 42) and 54.5 percent from 3-point range (6 of 11).

“I think they came out with focus,” said Taylor, who got 12 points from Zach Burry and 10 points from Mason Fairley. “We got off to good start. (UT) played physical, and we didn’t cowtow to them. We took it back at them and got some easy ones from it. I think we just played with a lot of confidence.”

That could carry Quincy to the WB6 crown.

With Moline beating Galesburg 57-56 as the Maroons’ Derrick Stabler split a pair of free throws with 1.2 seconds remaining, the Blue Devils now own a two-game lead over both the Silver Streaks and Rock Island with four games remaining.

Quincy travels to Galesburg next week with the chance to conceivably knock the Silver Streaks out of the WB6 race.

“More than any team we’ve had in the past, we all play for one another,” Kvitle said. “Because of that, we’ll be good. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot of basketball left. But we’ll play as a team and give ourselves a chance.”

United Township coach Marc Polite believes the same thing about the Panthers.

Keegan Wenskunas and Evan Spurgetis came off the bench to combine for four 3-pointers — Wenskunas made three of them — in the first half as UT led until Fairley buried a 3-pointer from about 30 feet at the first-quarter buzzer.

Although they trailed by as many as seven points in the second quarter, the Panthers (3-17, 1-5) made a push to get within four points at halftime. Sophomore guard Trevor May, who spent much of the first half on the bench with two fouls, scored five points in the final 51 seconds to make it a 32-28 game.

“I thought we played well,” said Polite, who got four 3-pointers and 14 points from Raymond Terronez. “We definitely had some things we needed to address (at halftime), but I thought we had given ourselves a chance.”

Quincy took that away.

The Blue Devils’ opening salvo of the third quarter featured five points coming off Panthers’ turnovers as UT committed six miscues in the quarter and 18 overall.

“I just thought we had some struggles taking care of the basketball,” Polite said. “We had some stretches where we threw it around the gym a little bit.”

Quincy took advantage, making its first five shots and going 9 of 11 from the field overall in the third quarter.

“We had a pretty good flow,” Taylor said.

It helps when confidence soars.

“You have to shoot it to make it, not shoot it not to miss,” Kvitle said. “You have to know it’s going in. There are sometimes you feel that way after you make a couple.”

It’s a feeling the Blue Devils hope lingers.

— mschuckman@whig.com/221-3366

WB6 Run

0128139095406_largeThe three-time defending Western Big Six Conference champion and preseason favorite, according to a media poll, visits Blue Devil Gym on Friday night with its sights set on moving into a first-place tie with Quincy High School.

Rock Island might be looking for a little revenge, too.

Last year, in the regular-season finale, Quincy’s Martin Kvitle buried a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left to give the Blue Devils a 51-48 victory over the Rocks and a share of the WB6 crown. Had Rocky won, it would have captured the league title outright for the second year in a row.

Instead, it had to share the title with Quincy for the second time in the last three years.

Although Friday marks the midpoint of the WB6 season, several scenarios already are developing that could lead to these two rivals sharing the title or duking it out with the title at stake when Quincy visits Rocky on Feb. 22.

And don’t forget Galesburg could play the spoiler role for both. The Blue Devils got the better of the Silver Streaks at Blue Devil Gym in December, but a trip to Thiel Gym in February looms. Galesburg, meanwhile, handed Rocky its lone WB6 loss so far and figures to be 4-1 in the league after this week.

So what many saw as a two-horse race has another entry, one capable of winning the whole thing.

With that in mind, how does Quincy win its 21st league crown?

The Blue Devils will do it with size.

Jason Salrin, the 6-foot-7 senior forward, gets better day after day and is arguably the best rebounder in the league. He’s always been a presence on the defensive end of the floor and on the boards, but his offensive contributions are growing and his confidence is soaring. There may not be a big man in the league that can shut him down right now.

Add to that the presence of 6-3 junior Connor Mellon, who says he is getting more comfortable and really understanding his role. Mellon transferred from Quincy Notre Dame, enrolling at QHS the first week of school learning Sean Taylor’s offense and the coach’s demands on the fly. It gives Quincy a solid 1-2 punch.

Throw 6-3 junior Barnell Thomas in the mix and the Blue Devils possess three guys who know how to go get the basketball. Thomas’ emergence as a rebounder and finisher adds depth to a frontcourt that has gone from a question mark to a strength.

The veteran backcourt is a constant for Quincy and much will be expected from Kvitle, Cole Abbey and Mason Fairley down the stretch.

Yet, if the Blue Devils are serious about winning the WB6 outright and adding their number to the wall in Blue Devil Gym, they better go big to do it.

Defense

0128139095406_largeMartin Kvitle understands the Quincy High School boys basketball team’s solid first half of the season will grab people’s attention.

It’s not what gets you remembered.

“They don’t put numbers up for what we’ve done,” said Kvitle, motioning toward the north wall of Blue Devil Gym where each of Quincy’s Western Big Six Conference championships and state appearances is highlighted. “This is Quincy. Those things matter to people. Those things matter to us. That’s what we’re working toward.”

The Blue Devils have set themselves up to add to that legacy.

Quincy is 11-2 following a runner-up finish at the 29th annual Collinsville Schnucks Holiday Classic. The Blue Devils sit alone atop the WB6 with a 3-0 record, and they are enjoying their first state ranking since Illinois went to a four-class system, settling in at No. 8 in this week’s Class 4A poll.

As Kvitle noted, none of that matters if the Blue Devils don’t follow it up with something special.

Just how do they do that?

They continue playing defense the way they have the last 12 games.

A team with high expectations got a reality check in the season opener against Carbondale. Devontavius Payne lit the Blue Devils up for 33 points and the Terriers overcame a double-digit deficit to win 76-70. Since then, the Blue Devils have allowed 60 points only once, held eight opponents to 43 or fewer points and are allowing 40.4 points per game.

“I’m really happy with our defense,” senior guard Cole Abbey said. “Like Coach said, that’s going to be our identity this year. We’re really playing good defense.”

For the second half of the season to mirror the first and for the Blue Devils to add their number to the wall, the defense better be just as good.

State Ranked

0128139095406_largePosted by mschuckman – January 10, 2013

When the Quincy High School boys basketball players learned they had cracked the Class 4A state poll, there was a moment of pride.

“We’re surprised we’re No. 8, but we worked hard for it,” senior guard Cole Abbey said.

They know they can’t be satisfied by it.

“That’s just a number,” senior guard Martin Kvitle said. “We can’t look at that and think that’s it. We have bigger, better things we need to have on our minds.”

Still, Quincy’s first state ranking since Illinois went to a four-class system should be motivation to make the second half of the season just as memorable as the first.

The Blue Devils (11-2) strung together an 11-game winning streak — the second-longest streak in Sean Taylor’s 10 seasons as head coach — while reaching the championship game of the 29th annual Collinsville Schnucks Holiday Classic and starting Western Big Six Conference play 3-0.

“I want them to appreciate it because it says something about how they’ve developed as players and as a team,” Taylor said. “When it’s all said and done, you better bring it on Friday and Saturday nights. I know it’s cliche, but it doesn’t matter what you’re ranked when the ball goes up.

“It’s a good reward for everything they’ve done thus far, and hopefully they’ll work to improve even more.”

Quincy finds itself in familiar company. Edwardsville is ranked fifth, Belleville East is sixth and Rock Island is seventh. Throw in No. 4 Chicago Heights Marian Catholic, which visits Blue Devil Gym this Saturday, and the Blue Devils can gauge just how well they stack up.

“We have the chance, I think, to be really good,” Kvitle said.

Collinsville Wrap-Up

0128139095406_largeMartin Kvitle didn’t agree with the call, but he’d make the play again.

Three minutes into Saturday night’s championship game of the 29th annual Collinsville Schnucks Holiday Classic, East St. Louis guard DeShawn Munson stole a ball in the backcourt and attacked the rim, looking to dunk. Kvitle, Quincy High School’s senior point guard, blocked Munson and knocked the Flyers standout to the Vergil Fletcher Gym floor in the process.

Kvitle was called for a flagrant foul while Munson went to the line and made 1 of 2 free throws. Munson scored on the ensuing possession as part of the Flyers’ 8-0 run to open the game that propelled them to a 60-52 victory.

“We have to make fouls like I did,” Kvitle said. “There should be no easy layups. It was a questionable call (whether it was intentional). Back in the day, that’s just a foul. But you can’t blame the refs. You have to play hard. You have to make plays like that.”

It set the tone for a physical, aggressive and sometimes chippy game.

With the Blue Devils trailing 52-43 in the final two minutes, Quincy’s Cole Abbey made a steal near midcourt and was hip-checked into the scorer’s table. The Quincy bench wanted a flagrant fouled called. Instead, Quincy coach Sean Taylor was slapped with a technical foul when he jumped up and down in disgust.

The technical didn’t factor much into the outcome. Abbey made two free throws after the foul, while East St. Louis made 1 of 2 free throws and then failed to scored on the ensuing possession.

Mellon to sit next game

Quincy junior forward Connor Mellon will serve a one-game suspension when the Blue Devils face Rock Island Alleman Jan. 11 at Blue Devil Gym.

With 3:43 remaining against East St. Louis, Mellon was called for elbowing East St. Louis forward Terry Beckner as they worked for position in the post. Mellon was given a technical foul and ejected.

The reaction of the Quincy crowd led to one fan being walked away by school personnel and another fan being escorted from gym by police officers.

In the record book

Kvitle added his name to the tournament record book by going 10 for 10 from the free-throw line.

He becomes the 13th player in tournament history to finish with a 1.000 free throw percentage in a single game. To qualify, a player must have at least 10 attempts.

Kvitle joins two other Quincy players on the list. Jack Kramer went 13 of 13 from the line against Chicago Julian in 1985. James Bailey went 10 for 10 against East St. Louis Lincoln in 1986.

The all-tournament team

Belleville East forward Malcolm Hill, who has signed with Illinois, was named the tournament MVP. Hill led the top-seeded Lancers to third place while averaging 27.5 points and 3.5 blocked shots per game.

Kvitle and Cole Abbey were both named to the all-tournament team. Kvitle averaged 15.3 points and Abbey averaged 17.3 points for the Blue Devils.

The rest of the all-tournament team included Munson, East St. Louis forward Johnny McCray, Collinsville guard Falando Wilkinson, Springfield Southeast guard Herman Senor, Granite City guard Omar Walker, Dunlap forward Alex Sorenson, Lincoln guard Max Cook and Riverview Gardens guard Tyrin Williams.