WEST FRANKFORT — Jackson Connor reached another milestone Tuesday night.
Better yet for Connor and his Marion teammates, they were able to properly celebrate it with a win.
Using a half-court trap to finally force turnovers from Cairo in the final 2 ½ minutes, the Wildcats finished the game with a 13-2 run for a 51-46 win in the opening boys game of the 34th West Frankfort Mid-Winter Classic at Max Morris Gym.
Connor’s 3-point play with 1:47 left gave Marion a 45-44 edge, and his putback of a missed shot in the final 35 seconds made it 49-46. Terrell Jones’ try for a game-tying 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining went begging, and Brett Lewis sealed the outcome with a transition layup.
“We needed that win,” Wildcats coach Gus Gillespie said. “We hadn’t won a game since we got back in school. I thought we showed some character to come back the way we did. I’ve played Cairo for a lot of years, dating back to when I coached in Kentucky, and they get up for games like this.”
Connor entered the game needing only 11 points to pass James Orr for second place on the school’s all-time scoring list. He didn’t waste much time getting there, sticking back a missed shot just before the midway point of the second quarter for his 1,627th career point. Connor finished the night with 24 points and eight rebounds.
Gillespie, who took the program over three years ago, has watched Connor mature from a player who let things bother him to one who maintains composure in the face of heavy defensive attention and physical play.
“He continues to score, and he makes tough shots,” Gillespie said of the 6-6 senior. “He gets hit a lot. I thought he made some big plays for us tonight. He’s a big, strong kid, and in the past, he would react to things. But he keeps trucking on and scores points.”
Venson Newsom added 12 for Marion (13-6), including a bold drive to the bucket with about a minute remaining for a 47-44 lead. Dequavius Williams answered with a basket and foul for the Pilots (9-12) but couldn’t convert on a potential tying free throw.
Cairo actually owned a 44-38 lead with three minutes left behind Jones (17 points) and Williams (11), but coughed up three critical turnovers as it failed to consistently center the ball against the Wildcats’ traps.
“I’m not disappointed in the effort,” Pilots coach Larry Wood said. “The guys played hard, but we had some turnovers down the stretch. And you have to give Marion credit. They showed character fighting back. They didn’t quit.”
Cairo hurt itself with foul shooting, going just 2 of 10 at the line. That included a 1 of 6 showing in the second quarter, when it clanked the front end of two one-and-ones that prevented it from cutting into a 23-17 halftime deficit.
The Pilots lost despite making 52.4 percent from the field in the second half, frequently making the extra pass that wasn’t part of their first half attack. Marion claimed a 34-27 advantage on the glass.
In the nightcap, Herrin rallied in the fourth quarter to stop West Frankfort 57-52. The Tigers trailed 43-40 after three quarters, but took a late lead and then turned to point guard Brandon Anthony to close things out.
The smooth senior hit a pair of one-and-ones in the last 30 seconds, sandwiching them around a missed 3-pointer that could have tied the game for the Redbirds.
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