PEORIA — E.J. Liddell became a little emotional once he packed up his hotel room, getting ready to leave for Carver Arena and the Class 4A state championship game on March 16. Those same emotions returned in the locker room ahead of Belleville West's showdown with Evanston.
"I knew this was my last time playing with my best friends and my brothers," Liddell said. "Before the game in the locker room, I was tearing up because I knew this was my last ride."
Liddell's last ride ended in victory. Belleville West stormed through the final 8 minutes, turning a one-point lead through three quarters into a 71-59 victory and a second straight state championship. Liddell went out on top individually, too, as News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year for the second time, joining Jabari Parker (Simeon), Jon Scheyer (Glenbrook North) and Jamie Brandon (King) as the only repeat winners since the award was first handed out in 1983.
Liddell tried to enjoy his final high school season as much as possible before he starts his college basketball career next season at Ohio State. The Maroons, who finished 34-4, certainly had enough blowouts where he was able to spend time on the bench at the end of games enjoying win after win. That included Belleville West's state semifinal 70-46 victory against Curie, where Liddell joked with teammate Will Shumpert for not dunking after he delivered a perfect pass for a baseline drive and then spent the final few minutes people watching and mugging for the cameras on the bench.
"I'm a pretty uptight guy," Belleville West coach Joe Muniz dead-panned. "I'm pretty serious all the time. E.J.'s the one who kind of keeps me calm sometimes. He's like that with the kids. If things are going bad, he'll keep them calm. He'll say something. He'll do something just to liven the mood up."
Some pressure might have existed in trying to repeat after winning the first state title in Belleville West history last year, but Liddell didn't feel it.
It was hard to keep the smile off his face as he played.
"I didn't feel any pressure because we're just playing basketball and having fun with it," Liddell said. "I have fun with it. We prepared ourselves for this season very well going to great tournaments, and our conference this year was ridiculous. This run is special because it was my last games with my best friends."
Belleville West needed Liddell's calming influence in the state title game against Evanston. The Wildkits led by as many as 12 points midway through the second quarter, and their pressure defense was both forcing plenty of turnovers and keeping the Maroons from running their offense.
Liddell started the third quarter demanding the ball. Fun was going to have to be put on hold for the final 16 minutes. There was another state championship to win.
"I just know this, the sucker wants to win," Muniz said. "He doesn't care what it takes. He just wants to win.
"We wanted him to demand the ball. We wanted him to have the ball in his hands. He's the best player in the state. He was not going to be denied."
Liddell finished off Belleville West's second straight title with 24 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. In other words, a fairly typical performance in a season where he averaged 20.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 3.3 assists in 37 games.
"I've been telling people I'm a point guard," the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Liddell joked after becoming the de facto ball handler in the second half against Evanston.
"They were pressuring our guards and (regular point guard Lawrence Brazil III) was on the bench a little bit," Liddell continued. "I felt like I had to take over and just get us into our stuff. I felt like I kept playing with the same energy and same heart the whole game. I knew this was going to be my last game, so I knew I had to leave it all on the floor."
Liddell basked in the postgame celebration after the title game. He took what seemed like an endless number of selfies with fans that surrounded the Carver Arena floor, joked and laughed with his teammates one last time on the court together.
Liddell enjoyed himself that night. He left perspective on his career — 2,508 points, 1,004 rebounds, 500 blocks, 322 assists and those two state titles — for later, but he acknowledged the support he and his teammates received the past two seasons.
"Last year, we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," Liddell said. "How big of a stage it was going to be. How everybody in the stands was going to be watching and how many people were behind us. Right now, we know we have all the support in the world.
"They love watching us. It means a lot because everybody has our back. They've had our back for a long time."
The only emotion left for Liddell after Belleville West's second state championship was joy. It was Muniz's turn to experience the feelings — the tears — Liddell had before the game.
"He kept being who he is, stayed true to himself," Muniz said as his voice started to crack. "He's the best player I've ever seen and greatest kid I've ever coached."
News-Gazette All-State boys' basketball Players of the Year
Year Athlete School
2019 E.J. Liddell Belleville West
2018 E.J. Liddell Belleville West
2017 Mark Smith Edwardsville
2016 Jordan Goodwin Belleville Althoff
2015 Jalen Brunson Stevenson
2014 Jahlil Okafor Whitney Young
2013 Jabari Parker Simeon
2012 Jabari Parker Simeon
2011 Chasson Randle Rock Island
2010 Rayvonte Rice Centennial
2009 Jereme Richmond Waukegan
2008 Lewis Jackson Decatur Eisenhower
2007 Derrick Rose Simeon
2006 Jon Scheyer Glenbrook North
2005 Jon Scheyer Glenbrook North
2004 Shaun Livingston Peoria Central
2003 Shannon Brown Proviso East
2002 Dee Brown Proviso East
2001 Eddy Curry Thornwood
2000 Darius Miles East St. Louis
1999 Brian Cook Lincoln
1998 Quentin Richardson Whitney Young
1997 Sergio McClain Peoria Manual
1996 Ronnie Fields Farragut
1995 Kevin Garnett Farragut
1994 Antoine Walker Chicago Mount Carmel
1993 Rashard Griffith King
1992 Chris Collins Glenbrook North
1991 Howard Nathan Peoria Manual
1990 Jamie Brandon King1989 Jamie Brandon King
1988 LaPhonso Ellis East St. Louis Lincoln
1987 Marcus Liberty King
1986 Larry Smith Alton
Nick Anderson Simeon
1985 Ed Horton Springfield Lanphier
1984 Roger McClendon Centennial
1983 Marty Simmons Lawrenceville