ALTON - The Alton Redbirds coaching staff was worried.

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Finals week is never an easy road to hoe.

“Tonight’s the kind of games we’ve struggled with the last couple of years. Finals, get out of school early, didn’t have a huge student section,” head coach Eric Smith said. “We told them before the game this formula scares us. We came out a little flat, but it shows that our kids are resilient and they’ll compete. It’s shown on our record.”

As a result, the Redbirds record got better as they took down the Belleville East Lancers 58-35 at Alton High School in Godfrey on Tuesday night.

The win ups their record to 7-1 overall, which is Alton’s best start since the 2014-15 season and also puts them at 5-0 in the Southwestern Conference tied with Belleville West in first place.

“We did some things a little bit better tonight. At halftime, we were still a little bit concerned because we take too many chances and take ourselves out of plays. We’ll guard hard for one or two passes, and then we’ll try for the easy way out and go get a steal,” Smith said. “We got kids that can play, but we just gotta commit to sitting down and guard, and if we can do that then we’ll be alright.”

Malik Smith was the leading scorer with 14 points. Kevin Caldwell followed with 12 and Donovan Clay added 11.

The Redbirds 58 points was a season-low thus far through eight games, but more importantly, they limited the Lancers to 35 points, which is the fewest the defense has allowed all year too. The leading scorers for East, Jordan Yates and Isaiah May were held to nine points combined. Jaylen Lacey tallied ten points to lead the Lancers.

“That’s really good for us. We need to keep up on defense,” Malik Smith said. “Our main focus should be on defense though because we have a lot of guys that can score the basketball and we have good team chemistry.”

“They pressed us a little bit, and obviously we had trouble getting into our offense at the beginning. We got kids that we put on the floor that can do some things with the basketball,” Smith said, “Our percentage has not been good, but we still scored 58 tonight, but we hope at some point in time our shooters will shoot better percentage-wise.”

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Both teams struggled to get an offensive rhythm going early with East-leading Alton 13-12 after the first quarter. Despite the Redbirds finding it hard to up the tempo, they eventually took the lead and never looked back.

With under five minutes to go until halftime, Alton started what would be an 11-0 run sparked by five straight points from Donovan Clay, and held East to three points in the second quarter. They led 26-16 at the break.

The Redbirds got turnovers whether it was their half-court trap pressuring East’s guards and getting steals or the Lancers committing unforced turnovers. On offense, Alton managed to get to the free throw line 13 times in the second half.

A three-pointer late in the third quarter by Jared Adams cut the deficit to 38-31, but that’s as close as Alton would let East get.

The Redbirds ran away from the Lancers in the fourth quarter outscoring them 20-4. Transition buckets, six-for-seven from the charity stripe did the job for the Redbirds, and a Malik Smith dunk was the icing on the cake.

“We’re doing really good, and everybody’s unselfish. It shows, and it helps a lot with the team and our offense,” Malik Smith said.

Alton will play Germantown from Tennessee in the first round of the 16-team Centralia Holiday Tournament. Then they’ll come back on Jan 5 and host Belleville West, but after that, they’ll be on the road for four of their next five SWC games.

“We’ll have to be road warriors for a little bit, but they did their jobs. We’re kinda beat up, but we’ve played some good teams and played okay basketball. There’s obviously some room for us to improve and we feel pretty good about that,” Smith said. “The kids feel genuinely excited about what the possibilities are to accomplish.”

Josh Rivers blocks a layup attempt.

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