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Giants fight leads to regional title

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SURROUNDED: Jalen Blackmon (1) and RaSheed Jones close in on a Delta guard in the Giants’ regional championship win on Saturday. Marion’s defense has limited opponents to 36.8 points through four games and has the Giants in the Class 3A final four.
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BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

Bill Green Arena on Saturday night felt a little bit like 1987 or 1976 or just about any night during the “Glory Years” of Marion High School boys basketball.

I walked through the doors about 40 minutes before tip off and the energy inside was palpable, the Arena was nearly three-quarters full. When the ball went in the air to start the game, there were no empty seats visible, and the atmosphere turned electric.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Hoosier Hysteria is alive and well in Indiana.

A full Green Arena always meant the temperature inside would be warmer than usual. The only thing hotter on Saturday was the competition between Marion and Delta in their battle for a spot in the Class 3A final four.

The 32 minutes of basketball wasn’t always beautiful, by either team, but both teams emptied their proverbial tanks in the competition. Anything less and the game could have become lopsided in either direction.

But that wasn’t going to be the case.

Delta appeared jittery at first, making just one field goal in the first eight minutes and falling behind the Giants, 16-4. Very few teams in Class 3A possess the speed and athleticism the Giants have, and it took the Eagles to adjust.

The 27-0 Eagles did adjust, and quickly, scoring 10-straight to start the second quarter to start the fight in earnest. Back-and-forth, teams trading figurative punches, battling for rebounds and loose balls.

Neither team shot well from the field, the Giants hit 36 percent and Delta just 32.5. Good defensive teams have that ability, and both the Eagles and Giants were good and making the other take tough shots.

Through four games in the tournament the Giants are surrendering under 37 points a game. Delta was averaging nearly 67 points and scored 39. The Eagles were giving up under 43.6 and nearly held to form allowing the Giants, a 69 per game unit to 45.

Both teams committed 17 turnovers, but timing was key element in deciding the outcome. The Giants last three errors were early in the fourth quarter over a span that neither team scored for nearly four minutes. Delta had eight in the final period, six in last 2:36 after it had taken a 39-34 lead. Marion’s early errors helped Delta climb out of its first quarter hole. The Giants takeaways late led to an 11-0 run and a dramatic conclusion to a classic game. 

Teams that win championships do it together, and Marion’s state-record 39th regional title was achieved as a unit.

Early on in the season D’Angelo Jones, Louis Guerrero, Trey Miles and Josh Balfour played significant minutes, mostly out of necessity, and that experience had them ready for the battle the Giants were in on Saturday.

RaSheed Jones has started for coach James Blackmon since opening night. He might still be a ninth-grader but he’s graduated from being a freshman on the court. He along with JK Thomas and Jalen Blackmon are true disruptors out front in Marion’s defense. Even the smallest mistakes often turn into turnovers and layups in a hurry because of the trio.

Seniors Dre Aguilar and Qu’Ran Howard are making opponents have second thoughts about trying to get to the basket.

All nine Giants that saw the floor against Delta plays to positively impact the outcome. Marion’s athleticism on defense and in transition ultimately won out.

The true deciding factor was toughness, mental and physical. The Giants maintained poise with time running out then made more tough plays – winning plays – with the game on the line.

Somewhat lost in the excitement of advancing into another final four on Saturday was that James Blackmon won his 250th game as a head coach in Marion’s 59-38 win over Angola in the semifinals.

In his 14 years, the first eight at Fort Wayne Luers, Blackmon has had just one losing season. He coached Luers to its first two regional championships in school history and backed it up by coaching his first-two state championships in 2008 and 2009.

After nearly willing his Giants team to a state title in 1983, Blackmon finally got to hang a championship banner in the Arena in 2016, his third state title as a coach.

The win over Delta gave James Blackmon a career coaching record of 251-112, meaning his teams have won 69 percent their games under his guidance. While the number of wins is far from the top of the state all-time leaders, Blackmon’s winning percentage is in top-10 vicinity.

Which leads to a perplexing question: how is James Blackmon not in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame?

It sounds almost asinine to ask, but ever more so that the answer is he’s not.

Not as a player, which is perplexing in itself, or as a coach. 

As a player, Blackmon still holds Marion’s all-time points scored record, which looks to be in jeopardy if Jalen Blackmon continues on his current trajectory. The elder Blackmon also still holds record of 52 points in a state finals game from 1983. And he was runner-up to Steve Alford for Mr. Basketball, wore number 2 on the Indiana All Star team and started for most of his four-year career at the University of Kentucky.

With three state titles as coach, Blackmon is already in select company and tied with legendary Muncie Central coach Bill Harrell and three other men.

Two more wins this season brings him even with more legends, Everett Case, Marion Crawley, Jack Keefer and Glenn Curtis with four. There’s only one man above those four now, and his namesake is on the Arena at Marion High School. Bill Green has six state championships as a coach.

The Giants will definitely have to earn the 2019 state championship, a date with defending 3A champ Culver Academies on Saturday in Elkhart is up next. But the Giants have been playing championship-style defense and a Indiana-record ninth banner and fourth state championship for Coach Blackmon are both within reach.

Hopefully the powers-that-be in the boardroom at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame will soon recognize what James Blackmon has already accomplished in his high school basketball career and give him his rightful place alongside the other greats in Indiana history.