Senior Evan Noelle opened the playoffs in a big way, scoring a career-high 39 points to lead the Marion Wildcats to a 69-61 win over Effingham in the opening game of the Mt. Vernon 3A boys basketball regionals Saturday night.
"It was a tough game at a weird time -- 6:30 on a Saturday night -- knowing that your season could end," said Marion coach Gus Gillespie. "We came out very sluggish and Effingham went up 10 points in the first half. In the last three minutes we cut it to one at the half and in the third quarter Noelle just took control. After losing Senior Night it was nice for the seniors to walk out of Wilson Gym for the last time winners."
Because of the new IHSA post-season scheduling the game was played before the hometown fans at Virgil "Cuss" Wilson Gymnasium. The Wildcats now hit the road to finish up the regional and will next play the top seed Mt. Vernon Rams in the semifinals Wednesday at 6 p.m.
"Mt. Vernon is the South Seven champs and we've had more downs than ups, but at least we've made it," Gillespie said. "We'll go there and try to play as good as we can. We have to get off to a good start and have to be consistent for four quarters to beat a team like Mt. Vernon."
The Wildcats and the Rams have played twice this season, with Mt. Vernon winning both; 50-34 at Marion Dec. 20 and, 51-43, two weeks ago at Mt. Vernon.
Marion (13-16) begins the post-season on a four-game losing streak and losers of six of its last seven regular season games, while Mt. Vernon (20-8) has won two in a row and five of its last six.
Marion has a history of getting off to a slow start this season, and against Effingham (11-20) it happened again, with the Flaming Hearts holding a 12-9 lead after the first quarter and a 29-28 lead at the half.
"The last three minutes of the second quarter we cut it to one and felt pretty good at halftime," Gillespie said.
The Wildcats came out of intermission and literally put the game away taking a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter. Marion traded baskets with Effingham in the fourth quarter for the eight-point victory.
Noelle was a shooting beast making 15-of-24 from the field overall, including 13-of-18 from inside the 3-point line. The senior also was perfect from the free throw line going 7-for-7.
Junior guard Brady Jackson scored a season-high 14 points, including 3-of-6 from the perimeter, with senior forward Nehemiah Goodman adding seven, sophomore guard Reece Anthony five and junior guard Nick Ucci two.
"Goodman kept a few balls alive on the offensive glass, which was nice for us," Gillespie said. "It was nice to see Brady play with a lot of confidence and shooting the ball well. Reece continued to play good and he played a very good second half."
As a team the Wildcats shot 50% from the field (25-of-50), including 59% from the inside (19-of-32) and 33% from the perimeter (6-of-18), and 59% from the line (12-of-22).
Ironically, the last loss by both the Wildcats and the Rams was to South Seven foe Cahokia (10-22). The Rams lost to the Comanches, 71-69, Feb. 3 in Cahokia and 12 days later beat the Wildcats at Wilson Gymnasium in the regular season finale last Wednesday, 58-47.
Cahokia led the entire game, leading 19-15 after the first quarter and 29-21 at the half. The Wildcats did its best to get back into the game in the second half, but the Comanches held them off extending their lead to 43-34 after the third and out-scoring by two in the fourth to win 58-47.
"It was a tough way to end the regular season because it was Senior Night and I would have liked to win the game," Gillespie said. "We played hard in the second half. We were down 20 early in the third quarter and had it down to five with six minutes to go when they missed a free throw, but we gave them an offensive rebound and they scored. You just can't have those mistakes when you are trying to come back. We've struggled with closing out games all season. We've been right there in the fourth quarter in a lot of games, but we just haven't made the plays down the stretch to win those games."
While Marion was perfect from the free throw line (8-of-8), the Wildcats shot only 41% from the field (16-of-39), including 28% from the perimeter (7-of-25). Noelle led the Wildcats with 19 points followed by 10 from Anthony and nine from Jackson.
"I thought Reece and Brady were very ready to play against Cahokia," Gillespie said.
Cahokia shot 46% from the field (19-of-41), including 42% from the perimeter (8-of-19), including seven in the first half.