CARBONDALE — But it did happen.
After trailing by 14 points late in the third quarter and 11 with 5:55 left in the game, the never-say-die Marion Wildcats pulled off a tremendous comeback victory on Friday night.
This time it was for a regional championship.
Marion finished the game on a 13-0 run and defeated Carbondale, 61-59, in the finale of the Class 3A event.
The Wildcats played stall ball for more than one minute of a tie game down the stretch. That’s when Jaden Lacy drove through the Terrier defense for a layup to give his team its first lead since early in the game with just 12 seconds left.
“I just love my team, and I love my city,” Lacy said. “They always start on us fast, and we just keep fighting. It feels good to bring this back to Marion. Our coach has been pushing us all year. He knows what we can do. He’s the only one that hasn’t counted us out, so we just play for him.”
This looked like it could be a lopsided loss for Marion for a bit in the second half. Darius Beane was torching the Wildcats to the tune of 27 points through three quarters. Beane racked up 14 points in the third quarter alone.
But after Beane drove to the rim for a basket to give Carbondale a seemingly comfortable 59-48 advantage with just under six minutes to go, the Terriers never scored again.
Meanwhile, Jackson Connor was huge during the run for the Wildcats. The 6-foot-6 sophomore sank a turnaround jump shot with 2:37 left to pull Marion within 59-57. Connor sank two free throws 25 seconds later to tie the game.
Connor scored six of the final 10 points for Marion, which improved to 20-11 this season.
“I would have thought they were crazy, honestly,” Connor said if he’d been presented with his team’s 13-0 finish before the game. “Coach just kept telling us to be ultra-aggressive. This is awesome and like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”
The Wildcats couldn’t do much to stop Beane through the first three quarters. But the Carbondale standout appeared to tire in the fourth period, which is understandable considering he’s had to carry the squad on his back for the past two and a half months.
“We played as well as we have played in an entire month for the first three and half quarters,” said Carbondale coach Jim Miller. “They made some adjustments, and we didn’t adjust like we typically would do. We lost our poise somewhat.”
Justin Saddoris started the big Marion run with a 3-pointer shortly after Beane scored the final basket for Carbondale. Saddoris finished with a team-high 18 points. Connor tallied 14, and Lacy had 12.
“We let one get away from us,” Miller said. “It was one of those games where we felt like we were well-prepared and there would be no surprises. Give (Marion) credit. They made plays.”
For the third straight game this season, Marion got off to a slow start against Carbondale. The Terriers held a 14-5 advantage just six minutes into the contest.
But for the second consecutive game against the Terriers, the Wildcats fought back for a victory. Once Marion was making its run late in the fourth quarter, the Wildcat fans were so loud they nearly drowned out the referees’ whistles.
“Yeah, it was crazy, the last five minutes of the game,” said Marion coach Gus Gillespie. “Our kids were able to make them turn it over a little bit. Our kids got confident, and sometimes when that happens the other offense gets a little tight. Beane had a monster game. He was impressive. It was a heck of a high school game.”
Beane wrapped up his great career with 29 points. Clayton Greer added 11 points, nine of which came in the first quarter.
Governor Bruce Rauner was in attendance, and he got to see a great game.
Marion travels to Centralia to play Columbia, which beat previously undefeated Alton Marquette in overtime Friday. The Wildcats will tip off at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the sectional semifinal.