The Marion Giants’ slogan is GFND, which stands for “Giants Fight Never Die.”
In other words, no matter the outcome, the Giants will give it their all from beginning to end.
And on Saturday evening in the 3A boy’s basketball regional final at Bill Green Area, the Giants certainly lived up to that motto.
Trailing by double digits heading into the final quarter, the Giants put together a valiant comeback effort, but fell just short in a 77-70 loss to the New Castle Trojans.
With the defeat, the Giants end their season with a 20-7 record, and close the books on an extraordinary freshman campaign from freshman point guard, Jalen Blackmon.
The Trojans, led by junior forward, Mason Gillis, got into a groove early, hitting five of their first six shots to build an early 10-4 advantage. Gillis was the main catalyst, scoring eight of those points for the Trojans.
After Blackmon stopped the bleeding temporarily with his first triple of the game, Gillis and shooting guard, Niah Williamson, engineered a 7-2 burst to give the Trojans a 10-point advantage. Williamson started the run with a triple and two made free throws, while Gillis scored his 11th and 12th points of the quarter from the charity stripe as well.
Despite an offensive bombardment from the Trojans, the Giants continued to fight, cutting the deficit to three on another Jalen Blackmon trey and a Dre Aguilar deuce, but Blake Burris answered right back with a trey of his own to give New Castle a 22-16 lead heading into the second quarter.
And in the following eight minutes, everything fell apart for the Giants.
Marion, who had trouble holding on to the ball in the first quarter, had even more problems in the second, turning the ball over nine times as New Castle built a 15-point halftime lead.
Blackmon hit his third three-pointer of the contest early in the quarter to make it a three-point game, but the Trojans outscored the Giants 18-6 the rest of the way to build the big advantage. While Gillis cooled off considerably after his hot start, Williamson and point guard Luke Bumbalough picked up the slack, combining to score 13 of New Castle’s 18 points.
Marion continued to struggle offensively in the third quarter, while New Castle hit shot after shot to increase their lead to 19 points.
“We had some fatigue set in,” Marion head coach James Blackmon said after the game. “We were trapping and extending our defense, but they were splitting the trap and making plays. We were trying to be aggressive, but they did a good job making shots.”
Trailing by double-digits to the No. 1 team in 3A, the Giants could have easily conceded.
But that is not the Marion way.
The Giants started the quarter with a 10-2 run to cut the Trojans’ lead down to nine, and after a Gillis field goal, Jalen Blackmon scored to make it a single-digit contest once again.
Gills scored again to increase the lead back to 11, but the Giants made another push, scoring seven of the next 11 points to make it a two-possession game.
But that was as close as the Giants would get, as Gillis and Bumbalough hit their free throws down the stretch to secure the victory and advance to the semi-state next weekend.
Blackmon finished his historic freshman season with a 25-point effort, while Tyrese Cobb, in his final game as a Marion Giant, scored 14. Gillis led the Trojans with 30 points, while Bumbalough added 19.
Along with stellar defense and efficient shooting from the field, the Trojans were excellent from the charity stripe, hitting 17 of their 23 free throws, good for 74 percent.
In a seven-point game, that turned out to be the biggest factor in the Trojans’ victory.
“I think that was the difference,” Marion head coach James Blackmon said after the game. “They went to the line and made more free throws, and when you are looking at a [single-digit] game, that can dictate [the outcome].”
Despite the outcome, the Marion Giants have a bright future ahead of them. Jalen Blackmon has the look of a bonafide superstar. JK Thomas is one of the most athletic players in the state. Latrell Simpson, Dre Aguilar, Qu’Ran Howard-Clement, and others will be back next season with a year of experience under their belts.
And though the Giants were understandably displeased with the way the game ended, their head coach encouraged them to look back on what they accomplished throughout the year, not just in their last game of the season.
“The guys were really upset,” James Blackmon said. “But I just told the guys to reflect on not just this game but the [entire] season. Those guys proved to be winners all season long. One thing I asked for at the beginning of the game was 100 percent effort, and I thought they tried to [give] that. That’s all we ask for. I thought the guys played hard, and we tried to put ourselves in a position to come back, but that’s just the way the game went.”