The Marion Giants had a tall order on Saturday night: beat the last undefeated boys basketball team in the state–the 27-0, top-ranked Delta Eagles–in order to win the regional it was hosting at Bill Green Arena and move on to the semi-state game. The Giants were up to the task, scoring the last 11 points of the game to overcome a five-point deficit with 2:29 to go and win going away, 45-39.
Fittingly enough, it was D’Angelo Jones who finished off the scoring, making two free throws with eight seconds left, because his overall play had been an important spark during the final run.
“When D’Angelo came into the game he gave us that extra energy and I thought that’s what we needed to finish the game off,” said Marion Head Coach James Blackmon, Sr., in an after-game interview
It was Blackmon’s son Jalen who led the Giants in scoring, with 20, most of which came in the first half. In fact, it was Blackmon’s three three-pointers which sparked the Giants to a 16-4 lead at the end of the first quarter, when it looked as if Marion would run away from the Delta.
The Eagles didn’t get to 27-0 on the season by folding easily, however, and they outscored Marion 12-6 in the second quarter to draw within four at the half.
Delta outscored Marion in the third quarter as well (17-11), as the two teams swapped the lead three times, including right at the buzzer when Brady Hunt’s tip-in gave the Eagles a 35-33 lead headed into the final period.
After Marion’s initial 16-point offensive outburst, Delta had held the Giants to just 17 points in the second and third quarters combined. “They played a two-three zone to make us shoot from outside and keep us out of the lane, and they did a great job doing it,” Blackmon said.
Marion’s scoring struggles continued; they scored just one point in the first 5:30 of the fourth quarter. Fortunately for Marion, their defense was equally stout, allowing just two points in that same time span.
That’s when Delta decided to slow down its offense and nurse its 37-34 lead.
“When they started holding the ball, [and we were] only down three, I felt pretty good,” said Blackmon, “…we were [in a] trapping [defense] and we went back to straight man-to-man. When you try to hold the ball three minutes against an aggressive man-to-man team, you’re going to turn it over, and I thought we got timely steals, and got easy buckets to take the lead.”
Jakylen Thomas had one of those steals, with less than two minutes to go, and then took a pass from Blackmon and broke away for a layup on the next possession to give the Giants the lead for good, 40-39.
A strong rebound by Dre Aguilar led to free throws for RaSheed Jones, and then Aguilar followed with a steal and a free throw of his own to put Marion up by two possessions, 43-39, with just over 20 seconds left.
“Down the stretch we made the stops when we needed to,” Coach Blackmon said.
In addition to Jalen Blackmon’s 20 points, RaSheed Jones had 10, D’Angelo Jones added a career-high five points, Thomas had four, and Aguilar chipped in three. Josh Balfour and Qu’Ran Howard rounded out the scoring with two and one, respectively.
Next Saturday in the semi-state, Marion will play Culver Academies, which beat Hammond 62-41.
In the semifinal Saturday morning at Bill Green Arena, the Giants got off to a fast start and pulled away, defeating Angola by a final score of 59-38 in a game that was never in doubt.
Jakylen Thomas and RaSheed Jones sparked Marion early, scoring 10 and 11 points, respectively, in the first half, when Marion built a 35-18 lead. Thomas would finish with 18, Jones with 17.
Qu’Ran Howard played a big role at the other end of the floor, swatting five shots and grabbing four rebounds to go with his seven first-half points.
Having built a solid lead, the Giants cruised in the second half, outscoring Angloa just 24-20 while conserving energy for the evening game.