By Matt Schuckman Herald-Whig
QUINCY — By the time Blue Devil Gym finally started to clear Friday night, the Quincy High School boys basketball players had posed for enough pictures to fill a scrapbook probably 10 times over.
“I don’t even like pictures,” junior guard Jaeden Smith said.
Yet, he smiled for every single one.
Smith’s second-half hot streak coupled with a dynamite defensive effort allowed the Blue Devils to exorcise some postseason demons with a 57-36 victory over Alton in the Class 4A Quincy Regional championship.
It is the Blue Devils’ first regional title since 2009, the 40th they have won at home and the 60th in program history.
The nine-year title drought had been the longest in program history, but it’s gone now.
“This group of seniors, we deserve it,” senior point guard Aaron Shoot said. “This whole team, this coaching staff, these fans, the city of Quincy, they deserve it. I really do believe we deserve it.
“We’ve worked really hard and we’ve come really close, but we hadn’t been able to get over that hump.
“So getting over that hump for the city, for the coaches and for ourselves, it feels incredible. To do it in front of this crowd, wow, that’s amazing.”
To do it against Alton made it perfect.
The Redbirds upset the Blue Devils in the regional each of the past two seasons, including erasing a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes of the regional championship two years ago.
Alton never got that chance this time. Quincy led by 14 at the end of the third quarter and went on a 10-1 run to start the fourth quarter, squelching any hopes Alton had for a rally.
It allowed Quincy coach Andy Douglas to pull his starters with two minutes remaining in regulation and give them the opportunity to soak in their accomplishment.
“I had to hold my emotions in,” Douglas said. “We talked all week long about 8:36 p.m. was when we were going to meet in the locker room and hoist that regional plaque up. So the emotions kind of hit hard. I’m still coaching and we’re up 20 and the guys on the bench were like, ‘Hey, man, calm down. We’ve got it.’
“It was an unbelievable night.”
It means for the first time in Douglas’ four years the Blue Devils play on.
Quincy (23-4) advances to play Belleville West (27-2) in the Class 4A Pekin Sectional semifinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday. According to the Illinois High School Association website, the game is being moved to Alton High School, although Quincy plans to dispute the venue change.
Regardless of where the game is played, the Blue Devils realize they have to continue to lock in defensively to keep their postseason run alive.
The Redbirds were held 25 points below their season scoring average, shot just 31.7 percent from the field and just 8.3 percent from 3-point range.
After making 13 3-pointers in Wednesday’s semifinal victory against Chatham Glenwood, Alton went just 1 of 12 from beyond the arc. The biggest reason was the inability to get penetration against Quincy’s 1-2-2 zone defense and kick it out for open looks.
“The physicality of the game dictated that,” Alton coach Eric Smith said. “You better be a man if you were going in there tonight.”
That’s where the Blue Devils wanted to go.
Leading 19-17 after a lackluster first half in which they went 6 of 23 from the field, the Blue Devils opened the second half by scoring on their first five possessions. Four of those baskets came inside and the fifth was a Jaeden Smith 3-pointer from the left corner that forced Alton to call a timeout down 30-20.
“We didn’t want to go away from our gameplan,” said Quincy forward Ben Amos, who had one of those field goals inside and finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. “We wanted to keep going at them. We knew they were going to come at us. The main thing was they were speeding us up in the first half. We had to get back, control them and make them play our style of game.”
Jaeden Smith played a huge role in that. He made the first shot of the game — a 3-pointer from the right wing — but missed his next six shots and had just three points at halftime.
After hitting two shots in 10-3 opening blitz of the second half, he hit three more 3-pointers in succession, finishing with 19 points and going 5 of 10 from 3-point range.
“All year, we’ve had some sluggish third quarters at home,” Jaeden Smith said. “We huddled up right before the second half and said we can’t have another sluggish third quarter. We came out and did what we needed to do.”
That was picture perfect.
“It’s been a rough few years of not winning a regional, albeit against some really good competition,” Douglas said. “To bring it back home to Quincy is special.”