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Giants spurt to win, gain share of NCC lead

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

LAFAYETTE — JK Thomas brought the energy Friday evening that lifted a stagnating Marion boys’ basketball team past McCutcheon 64-44 and gave the Giants a share of the North Central Conference lead.

Coupled with Anderson’s 71-65 victory at Logansport, the Giants (6-2) have a one-half game lead in the conference standings over the Berries. Lafayette Jeff also is 6-2 after defeating Indianapolis Tech, 82-69. Marion is chasing its first NCC title since the 2008-09 season.

“We still got work to be done,” Marion coach James Blackmon said in his postgame radio interview. “We still have to finish it out and Harrison is a tough team at their home so we got to go into that environment and make sure we seal the deal.”

Thomas had his best game since returning from a fractured ankle with 26 points and triggered the Giants’ closing 34-8 run with his long-rang shooting, playmaking and ball-hawking defense.

Marion won for the 10th time in 11 games and improved to 12-5 overall, while McCutcheon (6-12, 1-7 NCC) has lost 11 of 13. Yet, late in the third quarter the Mavericks were milking a 36-33 lead with a deliberate tempo that was frustrating the high-scoring Giants.

Josh Balfour scored 30 seconds before the break to bring the Giants to within one point, then Thomas made a steal and converted two free throws after he was fouled on a breakawy. Thomas gave the Giants their first lead since the first quarter, 37-36, but the diminutive guard was just heating up.

Jalen Blackmon opened the fourth quarter with a steal and layup and then Thomas knocked down a 3-pointer that boosted the Giants advantage to 42-36 just one minute into the period. Thomas continued to flourish with a steal and pass to Dre Aguilar for a layup and then hit back-to-back ‘3s’ for a 20-point advantage (58-38).

“He was playing off his instincts,” Blackmon said of Thomas on the radio, “and he’s a great player when he plays off his instincts.”

After Marion took a 12-8 lead at the start, McCutcheon spurted to a 20-14 advantage at the first break fueled by 3-point shooting and Rowen Farrell with 12 points in the quarter. Farrell averages 20 points and appeared headed for a big game but scored just two more points after Thomas picked up the defensive assignment on the junior guard.

The Mavericks continued to play from in front the entire second quarter, leading 26-25 at halftime, and most of the third quarter. Back-to-back ‘3s’ to start the second half put the Mavs on top 35-29 and then coach Blackmon made a switch to the Giants lineup.

Balfour and D’Angelo Jones were inserted into the lineup and provided the Giants with further energy to sped up the deliberate Mavericks. The Giants’ pressure contributed to the Mavs’ 23 turnovers and helped unleash their transition offense.

“We didn’t rotate our zone that well and we decided we would keep the ball pressure on (McCutcheon) and did a good job in the passing lanes, Blackmon said. “I thought that caused a lot of problems for them. Balfour and Jones brought energy and it was contagious. Our defense had an answer for a stagnant offense.”

Jalen Blackmon, the state’s No. 3 scorer at 32.9 points, finished with a season-low 13 points and had just three points on two shot attempts in the first half. For the game, the sophomore guard was 4-of-14 from the field and made all four free throw attempts.

Aguilar finished with eight points, RaSheed Jones seven points, Qu’Ron Howard six points and Balfour four points.

Marion hosts Greenwood at 4 p.m. today.