MARION — In a pandemic-shortened season, every game carries about three times the weight it normally would. That’s why it’s not illogical to suggest the path of Marion’s boys basketball season was hanging on the ending of Saturday’s entertaining non-conference clash with Murphysboro.
Down 10 points in the fourth quarter to an opponent that was killing it with quickness, the Wildcats were about to drop to 1-3 with tough home games next week against Cairo and Centralia on the card. Their response couldn’t have been better-scripted in coach Gus Gillespie’s eyes.
Led by a late explosion from Mount Vernon transfer Hunter Simmons, Marion wiped out its big deficit, forced overtime and then made a big defensive stop at the end to claim a 63-62 victory in Cuss Wilson Gym.
“I think our seniors really stepped up and made some big plays for us,” Gillespie said. “That’s a big win for us. Murphysboro’s crafty, shifty and they have three guys back from a (super) sectional team last year.
“That game can pivot you in two different directions, and I’m glad we were able to take care of that. The kids played hard, and they care.”
Simmons scored nine of his team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter, evening the score at 57 on a reverse layup with 25.8 seconds left to force overtime. Then he shot-faked Kenneth Hale on the right wing and drove for a layup with 45.1 ticks remaining for a 63-61 advantage.
Red Devils guard Calvon Clemons scored the last of his 22 points on a foul shot with 9.7 seconds on the clock to pull his team within a point. He got a chance to win the game after Venson Newsom missed two foul shots with 8.3 ticks remaining.
But Marion picked that time to play perhaps its best defense of the day. It walled the lane, denying Clemons the penetration he’d enjoyed for 35-plus minutes. Forced to fling up a running 3-pointer just before time expired, Clemons watched it bang off the glass and then crouched in the corner next to his team’s bench, head lowered in dismay.
Murphysboro dropped to 2-4. Its losses have come by a combined eight points, and two of them have been by one point.
“That’s the story of our season,” lamented Red Devils coach Daryl Murphy. “We’ve got kids who can’t execute, kids who can’t make free throws, kids who can’t handle the pressure and kids who can’t make (layups). When you do all that in crunch time … you just fold up like folding chairs.”
What made this one especially frustrating for Murphy was that Murphysboro appeared to take charge with a terrific third quarter. It erased a 30-27 halftime deficit by outscoring the Wildcats 17-7. Cornelius Davis and JaQuan Jackson combined for 15 points in the quarter, with Jackson’s driving layup making it 44-37 going to the fourth period.
When Clemons sailed down the boulevard for a layup early in the fourth, the Red Devils led 48-38. They were cutting a much taller opponent down to size with quickness and staying surprisingly competitive on the boards, thanks to stellar work off the bench from the 6-3 Hale.
But Marion suddenly twisted the plot with the help of pressure defense that forced turnovers and quick shots. Simmons finished off a 12-2 burst with a layup that tied the game at 50 with 3:04 remaining, setting the stage for his game-winner.
Trevor Jackson added 16 for the Wildcats, while Rayzhaun Bardo tallied 11 points before fouling out in overtime and Jordan Cook hit for 10.
“We looked like a team that hadn’t practiced much against Mount Vernon,” Gillespie said, referring to a blowout loss Friday night. “But the kids tried hard and they were gutted. For them to come back today and play at 3 p.m. against a good team and win the way they did, that makes you happy.”