Advertisement

St. Rita transfer Amari Edwards helps Phillips bring home Class 2A state championship. ‘It’s been a blessing.’

CHAMPAIGN — Spending the last two seasons as a member of a highly ranked St. Rita team filled with high-major college recruits, Amari Edwards envisioned himself winning a state title.

It never happened for him at St. Rita. But playing a crucial part Saturday afternoon on the biggest stage, Edwards helped lead Phillips, his new school, to the top of the mountain.

“I expected to be here with St. Rita, but it changed,” Edwards said. “I feel like on this team I have a bigger role than at St. Rita. It’s been a blessing, and now I’m a state champ.”

He sure is. Edwards scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, lifting the Wildcats to a 54-47 win over Benton in the Class 2A state championship game at the State Farm Center.

EJ Horton and Phoenix Childs each had 13 points and seven rebounds to lead Phillips (25-9). Elijah Harris added nine points, while Claude Mpouma contributed seven points and six rebounds.

It’s the second state championship in program history for Phillips, following a Class AA title in 1975.

“I feel like we’ve got everything,” Edwards said. “We’ve got one of the best backcourts in the state with me and EJ. We have one of the best bigs, Claude, who is only a sophomore.

“We have a great wing in Phoenix. We have some senior power. We just have everything.”

Isaac Billington scored 19 points for Benton (32-4).

Edwards’ rise from a role player at St. Rita to a star in his first season at Phillips was emblematic of the Wildcats’ team, according to coach Paris Martin.

Horton and Mpouma also were transfers from out of state.

“I feel like kids just need an opportunity to play,” Martin said. “I inherited all these guys from coaches and programs that didn’t believe in their talents and skill sets. I did my best to bring them all together, make them bond as a family, and now we’ve got us a state title.”

Edwards felt like the Wildcats were a team of overlooked players with something to prove.

“We all had a chip on our shoulder,” Edwards said. “We felt like we were the underdogs. Us being in a tough conference back in Chicago, that prepared us for the long run, and that chip on our shoulder that we all had was good for us.”

Benton went on a 6-0 run midway through the third quarter Saturday to pull into a 34-34 tie before Edwards’ 3-point play gave Phillips the lead for good.

Edwards missed 6 of 7 shots in the first half before taking off after halftime.

“The first half, I felt like I was rushing a little bit,” he said. “In the second half, I had to get back to myself. Knowing I’m a poised point guard, I had to get back to that, make plays for my teammates, attack and get in the paint and just be me.”

For Edwards, having the belief to know just being himself would be enough to succeed is something that has developed over the last year.

“It just comes from working hard every day and every night,” Edwards said. “Without that, you won’t have the confidence, and without confidence, you’re nothing.

“I feel like that hard work really prepared me and made me confident.”

Phillips opened the fourth on an 8-0 run to take a 45-36 lead. It was capped by a dazzling dunk from Horton, who missed one earlier in the game and got a technical foul for hanging on the rim.

“It was a two-on-one and Phoenix swung it to me,” Horton said. “I saw he was hesitant, and I was like, ‘I’m just going to rise up on him.’

“I was talking before the game, saying I was going to try to dunk on them. I had the opportunity and it went in.”

That put the exclamation point on an historic day for the Wildcats. And with three juniors and a sophomore in the starting lineup, it could just be the start for Phillips.

“We want to go back-to-back,” Edwards said.