The Marion Wildcats have been knocked down several times this season, but they haven't been knocked out.
From the highs of winning the Carbondale Holiday Tournament to the lows of a four-game losing streak at the start of the new year, it's been a roller coaster ride of a season for first-year head coach, Gus Gillespie.
But the Wildcats are still standing. They take on Springfield Southeast in the Class 3A Super-Sectional at 7 p.m. today at the Bank of Springfield Center, which seats 7,700.
"Anytime you can get some momentum in the postseason, it's a great feeling," Gillespie said. "We played very good basketball for a stretch in December, and then in January, we were very inconsistent. I think our play reflected some of our practice habits at that time."
The Wildcats (22-11) had another rough stretch in late January and early February when they lost four out of five games. Since then, Marion has won seven of its past eight games, including two wins over Carbondale.
Friday night, Cole Schafer drained a 3-pointer as time expired to lift the Wildcats to a 71-68 overtime victory over East St. Louis in the sectional championship game at Centralia.
"Cole spends a lot of time shooting after practice," Gillespie said. "Cole has hit that shot many, many times with nobody watching. He's had to fight through injuries and some adversity over the years. All that time he spent in the gym, it paid off for him in a big way."
Jaden Lacy and Justin Saddoris provide a lethal backcourt combination for Marion. Lacy has one of the quickest first steps in the south, and Saddoris has enjoyed a huge year, making plenty of clutch shots for the Wildcats.
Jackson Connor, a 6-6 sophomore forward, and Terrell Henderson, a 6-5 senior center, have played a key role in the success of this team as well.
"Henderson is just a rock in the middle for us rebounding the ball and defensively," Gillespie said. "He brings it every day."
Marion does have some bad losses this season. But the Wildcats also have some great wins. Not only did Marion deny Carbondale a chance to get a share of the South Seven Championship with Centralia, it also delivered an outstanding come-from-behind win over the Terriers in the regional championship game.
"These kids have bought in, and they are practicing a lot harder now," Gillespie said. "They have learned what we want from them from an offensive standpoint. They're taking quality shots, and I think that's paid off for us. This has been an up and down ride for us. But now we're on the good part of the ride."
Springfield Southeast, which was ranked second in the state late in the regular season, defeated Springfield Lanphier, 51-42, in the Decatur Sectional finale.
The Spartans (24-3) are led in scoring by Anthony Fairlee, who averages 16 points per game. Kobe Medley and Terrion Murdix each score at a clip of 12 points per game.
"They are ranked No. 2, and that should tell you that they're pretty good, and I think they've been ranked in the top five or six all year," Gillespie said. "They play very good defense. They make you handle the ball and force you to make decisions. That's their strength. This is the best defensive basketball team we will face so far this year."
Although this is basically a home game for Southeast, Gillespie expects Marion fans to travel well for this one, and they should, considering its the first super-sectional appearance for the program since 1990.
"The community support and our maniacs in the student section have been just totally unbelievable," Gillespie said. "They are fired up, and I have no doubt that we're going to have a strong representation up in Springfield. People are excited, and our entire student body and school are supporting us. I felt like our fans have really been passionate against Carbondale and against East St. Louis the other night. They may have been the driving force behind both of those wins."
Tickets for the game cost $8, and all seating is general admission. The winning team moves on to Peoria for the Class 3A final four on Friday.
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