METROPOLIS — A season filled with much progress for a Marion team that almost started over from scratch in November ended Tuesday night with a laundry list of what ifs.
What if Boston Ziegler hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury Monday night? What if a spate of first half turnovers hadn’t put the Wildcats in a game-long hole against a good Mascoutah team?
And most importantly, what if Marion had taken advantage of the Indians’ constant fouling that gave it nearly a free throw per minute?
Instead, the Wildcats made just 14 of 28 at the foul line, including 6 of 12 in the fourth quarter, and left Massac County with a 60-54 loss in a Class 3A regional semifinal.
In the second game, top-seeded Carbondale raced out to a 21-11 first quarter lead and eliminated the host Patriots 66-53. The Terriers will take on Mascoutah at 7 p.m. in Friday night’s regional title game.
“We were in a great position to win that game,” Marion coach Gus Gillespie said after his team finished 19-13, “but you’ve got to make your free throws and you’ve got to take care of the ball. But you take a couple of key ingredients out of the recipe, it’s going to taste different.”
The absence of Ziegler, a poised senior with the ability to score and handle the ball, was a little bit like taking mayonnaise out of honey mustard. The Wildcats’ offense didn’t operate with the same efficiency, and was plagued by turnovers in a couple of brief stretches of the first half as Mascoutah (21-11) established a 35-26 halftime lead.
To that deficit, Marion added one more obstacle. Star forward Jackson Connor, who’s become one of the best players in the area, drew three quick fouls in the third quarter and sat out the last 4:08 of the period after committing his fourth of the game.
Yet the Wildcats crept within 48-40 after three and made their push with Connor back on the floor for the fourth. He checked in with an immediate 3-ball, starting a 9-3 spurt that Mitchell Jackson climaxed with a 3-pointer from the right wing at the 3:42 mark to draw them within 51-49.
But the Indians, who had to make a trip of nearly 2 ½ hours in a chartered bus to make it to their regional, answered all the relevant questions down the stretch. Guard Jarred Johnson converted a driving layup for a four-point lead, then put the Wildcats away with four straight foul shots in the final 23.6 seconds.
“We were glad to finally find somebody to make some free throws,” said Mascoutah coach Justin Love, who watched his team go 6 for 14 in the fourth quarter. “Seemed like every time we got some momentum, something else went in their favor. Our guys battled through it a little bit.”
Fittingly, a turnover crippled Marion’s final realistic hope. It had the ball down three points on its baseline with 26 seconds left. A quick two would have extended the game and put on another layer of game pressure on Mascoutah, and a 3-ball would have evened the score.
But the Wildcats got nothing except a hurried bounce pass which was too low for anyone to corral and skidded out of bounds despite Connor’s best efforts to save it.
“Give Mascoutah credit,” Gillespie said. “They forced the tempo and made us make a lot of bad decisions, and a lot of hurried shots. That’s not how we’re effective.”
Connor scored a game-high 20 for Marion, while 6-7 junior Brett Lewis contributed 12 points and eight rebounds. Ryan LaJoye paced the Indians with 17 points and Shawn Wienstroer hit for 12.
Davaris Macklin was most responsible for Carbondale's fast start in the nightcap, scoring 10 of his 19 points in the first quarter. The Terriers (22-6) eventually pushed the lead as high as 17 points in the fourth quarter and never let Massac County into contention down the stretch.
Julian Russell tossed in 18 points to lead the Patriots (19-12).