In the illustrious and storied rivalry between the Marion Giants and the Mississinewa Indians, the overall series has decidedly been in Marion’s favor.
Heading into Wednesday’s pre-Thanksgiving, season-opening matchup, the two teams had squared off 51 times since 1953. The Giants emerged as winners in 47 of those games.
Mississinewa’s first win over the Giants came in 1953 in the Marion Sectional Championship. Behind Larry Hedden, Dick Smith, and legendary coach, John Fredenberger, the Indians won the title by a score of 61-34.
The following year, Hedden, Fredenberger, and company again defeated Marion in the Sectional Championship, this time by a score of 55-47. The Indians proceeded to win their first, and only, regional championship in school history.
It would be a while until Mississinewa would once again come out on top – 34 years to be exact. After the Giants won three straight state championships from 1985-1987, the Indians ended one of the greatest high school basketball dynasties that Indiana had ever seen, defeating Marion 45-42 in the 1988 Marion Sectional Semifinal.
Their fourth victory over Marion came on January 16, 2010, as current Mississinewa Athletic Director Chanse Young, then the head coach, led the Indians to a 67-60 triumph.
Over the past decade, the Giants and the Indians have engaged in several classic battles, but Marion always found a way to win.
That is, until Wednesday night.
In an electrifying 32-minute affair at the Bill Green Athletic Arena, a strong start, combined with some key shots down the stretch and a remarkable amount of poise, positioned the Indians to walk off the court as winners in an 80-78 thriller.
“We knew that probably everything would go against us,” Mississinewa Head Coach James Reed said. “We knew that the momentum wouldn’t be here…but I felt like we came out and we simply played within ourselves.”
Historically, the Bill Green Athletic Arena is a tough place to play for opponents. Throughout its 50-year existence, the Giants have won a plethora of unforgettable games within its wall.
“Playing in Bill Green is something else, especially in the home opener,” Mississinewa shooting guard and Ben Davis transfer Bryce Oglesby said. “It’s crazy. I haven’t been in an atmosphere like this, ever.”
But on Wednesday, playing in front of a consistently raucous crowd, the Indians played composed basketball from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
“It starts with practice,” Oglesby said. “We knew it was going to be like this since the football season ended. Our mentality has been not to let the noise get to us, stay the course, and stay focused. We’ll come out with a W every time.
“The way that me and my teammates played, it was something special.”
That equanimity resulted in their fifth-ever win over their longtime rival.
“The biggest thing we talked about was [that] we have to have a focus on each other,” Reed said. “We were not going to focus on anyone in the stands. We were not going to focus on momentum. We were going to simply…focus on each other. And they did that. And that was the only way that they [held] together through all of that adversity. I could not be more proud of this group.
“It’s so hard to play here, and they’ve got so much history here. We didn’t come and beat a poor Marion team. We came here and beat a veteran and a very good Marion team that wiped the floor with us last year. That kind of confidence [boost] is going to go so far.”
After falling behind 5-3 early in the first quarter, the Mississinewa offense went to work. Colin Yoder gave the Indians the lead with a triple, one of five for Mississinewa in the first eight minutes, which sparked a 20-6 run.
“We have to come out and be ready to play regardless of who we are playing against,” Marion Head Coach James Blackmon said. “I felt like we came out and took that first half for granted, and we let those guys get into a comfort zone.”
Oglesby and Landen Swanner made their presence felt early, each knocking down a pair of threes in the first quarter surge as the Indians built a 23-11 lead.
“We knew how it was going to be,” Swanner said. “Coach had us prepared. We knew they were going to overpressure us and all that, so we were just ready to play.”
While the Mississinewa offense hit eight of their nine shots in the quarter, their defense held Marion to just three-of-10 shooting in the opening frame.
Mississinewa’s hot streak continued into the second quarter, as they increased their advantage to 30-12, but after that, the Giants began to awake from their slumber.
Behind nine second quarter points from JK Thomas and some solid minutes from Matthew Goolsby off the bench, the Giants outscored the Indians 17-6 the rest of the first half, cutting Mississinewa’s 18-point lead down to 36-29 at halftime.
Mississinewa was lights out in the first half, knocking down 14 of their 19 shot attempts, good for 73.6 percent. Marion, on the other hand, shot just nine-of-21.
“This year, we came into the game way more confident than we have before in the past,” Mississinewa point guard Anthony Horton said. “This year, our gameplan was just to take care of the ball and try to win the game in a half court setting.”
The Indians’ defense did an excellent job of keeping Marion star point guard Jalen Blackmon in check, holding him to just seven points in the first two quarters.
“This year, we are a veteran team,” Reed said. “We took very few bad shots, and defensively, they are buying in. This is an unbelievable defensive team.”
Armed with the lead heading into the second half, the Indians did not rest on their laurels. Rather, they continued to push, opening the third quarter on an 18-6 run and building a game-high 19 point advantage in the process.
Much like he did in the first quarter, Yoder started the run with a field goal off his own miss. Horton followed with four quick points, former Giant Trey Miles hit a three, Tai McClung, a force underneath the basket all night, scored a layup, and Oglesby capped off the surge with his third triple of the game.
The Giants, however, pushed back. In the final 2:33 of the third quarter, Marion scored 13 points, which included five points from Blackmon and two huge threes from Rasheed Jones, including one at the buzzer, to trim Mississinewa’s lead to 57-48 heading into what would be an exciting final frame.
The Indians did their best to keep the Giants at bay, but Marion kept coming. Blackmon cut the Indians’ advantage to single digits with a three, and after Swanner answered with a triple of his own, Blackmon scored seven straight to make it 64-59.
Mississinewa’s lead fluctuated between four and seven points over the next few minutes, but with 3:15 left to play, Yoder was called for a technical foul, which resulted in four free throws for Blackmon. He hit three, trimming Mississinewa’s lead to three points.
The back and forth play continued. Swanner answered with a bucket and a free throw, and a short time later, Thomas recorded a steal, going coast-to-coast and laying it in, making it a 73-70 game.
Swanner then scored four straight points, including a pair of free throws, to give the Indians a 77-73 advantage with 15.1 seconds left.
Over the next 13 ticks, three free throws from Thomas, a free throw from Horton, and two more from Blackmon knotted the contest at 78-78 with 2.9 seconds to play.
With overtime looming, Horton, after taking the inbounds pass, was fouled 50 feet from the basket, resulting in two more free throws with 0.5 seconds on the clock.
Knowing that the game’s outcome rested on his shoulders, Horton was confident that he would get the job done.
“I just knew that if I missed the free throws, we were going into overtime, so there wasn’t that much pressure,” Horton said. “I just had to knock them down.”
And he did.
Horton hit both free throws, a desperation heave from Blackmon fell harmlessly to the ground, and the Indians escaped with one of their biggest victories in recent memory.
“It means a lot, considering we were in a pretty similar situation a couple of years ago in the sectional and we came up short,” Horton said. “Last year, they just dominated us, and it just feels real good to get this win.”
Four Indians finished in double figures. Swanner led the way with 22 points, while Oglesby, in his first game in a Mississinewa uniform, came away with 16, including four threes.
“Oglesby has been a pretty good kept secret for us,” Reed said. “In our open gyms and in our preseason practices, the kid was simply lights out. What a lift he gave us tonight.”
Horton finished the evening with 11 points, while McClung also added 11 points as the Indians shots 65.1 percent (28-of-43) from the field.
Blackmon, after scoring just seven points in the first half, exploded for 24 after halftime and finished with a game-high 31, passing his brother, Vijay, for ninth place on Marion’s all-time scoring list.
Thomas finished with 27, while Goolsby put together an excellent performance in his first varsity action, scoring 11 points.
“I thought [Tai] McClung played well, and Matthew came out and matched his energy,” Blackmon said. “He got off to a good start with a lot of high percentage layups. He just brought a lot of energy and got a lot of high percentage shots.”
It’s only one game, and there will be high and lows throughout the course of the 2019-2020 season.
But for the Indians, their campaign is off to a great start.
“It’s hard to not be excited when you put that much on the floor and then win like that,” Reed said. “Our confidence as a team and as a unit was extremely high before we came in because we practiced so well. If they maintain this game-to-game, they can do literally anything they want this season.”