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EDWARDSVILLE – Jaylen Townsend led Edwardsville with 21 points as the Tigers used a pair of runs in the second and fourth quarters, along with a pair of clutch threes from Maddie Stephen, to defeat O’Fallon Tuesday night 45-39 and clinch the Southwestern Conference championship at Lucco-Jackson Gym.

It was a tight game throughout, but the Tigers used a 9-0 run from late in the third quarter to the first part of the fourth, along with some big free throw shooting late, to win the game.

Tigers coach Lori Blade praised the Panthers for their efforts.

“They’re good,” Blade said. “Nick (Knolhoff, O’Fallon’s head coach) does a great job coaching them, they can shoot it, they guard well, they’re good. But I’ll tell you what, we went on two specific runs with about four, five minutes to go in the second quarter, and somewhere by about five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, that won this game. But we have to get back to doing the little things that make us pretty good on a more consistent basis. We’re just kind of floating right now, and that’s not a good thing with the postseason a week away. But you know what? They solidified the conference tonight, and I would have thought that this group could do it coming in, but it was going to be very difficult because there are some awfully good teams in the conference. But I’m really proud of their effort; they could have backed down tonight when they got down, and when they got back, and they came back. It was just a good game all around, and I thought we hit some big shots at times.”

The Tigers trailed in the third, but Townsend took over the game, scoring key baskets to bring Edwardsville back.

“When they threw that ball off of her out of bounds, that kind of lit a fire under her," Coach Blade said. "So that was good to see, that we responded with a little bit of passion and emotion in the game. Because that’s what I mean, we were just kind of floating, and we can’t take things for granted. But she did, that lit her up, Maddie getting a couple of threes in a different set, and just some all around. That’s what, when we’re pretty good, that’s what makes us pretty good, because everyone brings a little bit of something different, and we’ve got to find that path again.”

That Stephen was able to hit the threes in clutch situations was a good sign for the Tigers.

“Well, they had two bigs in,” Blade said, “and we tried to spread it out a little bit. Maddie hit a couple against them the first time that was big, and today, again, the same thing, just from the baseline instead. And you know what? We had good shots, we couldn’t get it to go down at certain times, but good teams are going to find a way to win, and that’s what we did. It was ugly at times, but we played defense when we had to, and rebounded when we had to, but I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished through the conference throughout the year, not just tonight.”

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The opening term saw the Tigers jump out to the first lead, as Townsend hit from outside and at the end of a fast break to give Edwardsville a 6-2 lead, which became 10-4 after another pair of Townsend baskets. A Tyana Lovelace basket and a three from Ashley Schloer cut the lead to 10-9 at the end of the first.

Both sides traded baskets to start the second, and Townsend hit on a three-point play to make it 15-11 for Edwardsville, and after a Que Love free throw, Izzy Akoro connected on a three-point play of her own to make it 16-14. The Tigers then went on a 7-0 run, getting a three from Sydney Harris and baskets from both Townsend and Harris to make it 23-14, forcing O’Fallon to call time. The Panthers then went on 6-0 run of their own, as Schloer scored off a steal, and both Akoro and Schloer both scored off a rebound to cut the Tiger lead to 23-20 at halftime.

O’Fallon took their first lead of the game at the start of the third, getting a Schloer basket and a three-point play from Kayla Gordon to take a 25-23 lead. A pair of Morgan Hulme free throws tied the game back up, but the Panthers scored twice, getting baskets from Amelia Bell and Schloer, the second basket coming after Schloer threw an inbound pass off Townsend and scoring to make it 29-25. After an O’Fallon free throw, Townsend took things over, hitting a big three and then scoring off a second chance to tie the game up at 30-30. A Love three from the baseline gave the Tigers the lead back, and Townsend got a great pass and scored to make it 35-30. A pair of Akoro free throws made it 35-32 at three-quarter time.

A three-point play from Gordon at the start of the fourth retied the game at 35-35, but the Tigers went on a 7-1 run to take the lead for good. Stephen hit a three to give Edwardsville the lead, a Kylie Burg free throw extended the lead to 39-35, and another three on the side by Stephen gave the Tigers a 42-35 advantage. A free throw from Bell made it 42-36, and late free throws by Love and Townsend extended the lead to 45-36. Reyna Bullock hit a late three to cut the lead to six, but the Panthers could get no closer as Edwardsville took its 45-39 win.

In addition to Townsend’s 21, both Love and Stephen had six points, while Schloer led the Panthers with 11 points, and Gordon and eight.

The Tigers upped their record to 26-2, while the Panthers fell to 23-7.

Edwardsville concludes the regular season at home Thursday night with their Senior Night game against Alton, with the tip-off coming at 7:30 p.m., then opens up their postseason at the Class 4A regional in Quincy Feb. 12. Blade is looking ahead to the Senior Night ceremonies.

“You know what? We’re going to celebrate our five seniors Thursday with Alton,” Blade said, “and then, we’ll see. After that game, we’ll get on to the postseason, so we’ll see.”

And Blade is very proud of her team for winning the Southwestern Conference when not many observers gave the Tigers a chance.

“Just proud of the kids,” Blade said. “Nobody really gave us much of a chance there at the start of the year to come in and win the conference. Hopefully, we can get one Thursday and go undefeated in it.”

Dan Brannan also contributed to this story.

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