Marion advances to Badger Christmas Final against Maumelle
By Chuck Livingston Sports Editor
BEEBE — Marion senior guard A.J. Latham got a clean look from three-point range on the left side of the arc and didn’t hesitate. The guard’s jumper whispered through the net, setting off an eruption of cheers from the assembled Marion crowd behind the Patriot bench. Latham’s third three-pointer of the game, part of a 15-point outing, gave Marion a 20-point lead at 44-24 midway through third quarter, and his Patriots won consecutive games for the first time all season in a 64-49 win against Blytheville. The game was a rematch from Saturday, December 5 as part of the West Memphis Blue Devil Classic, a contest that Marion captured by a slim 64-61 tally. It was also one that saw the Pats fall behind midway through the fourth quarter before rallying to nab the victory. Evidently, a lot can change in three-and-a-half weeks. “I gotta give my guys a ton of credit right now because they’ve gotten after it during the holiday break,” explained Marion head coach Irving Clay. “I feel like especially on defense, we’ve seen a big improvement from where we were.” One night after limiting Class 4A Brookland to 37 points in a first-round win at the Badger Christmas Tournament in Beebe, Marion (5-5 overall) continued to be aggressive on defense in topping its former 4A-East league foe. Marion forced 14 turnovers, an average amount, but the Pats appeared to work hard to get into good defensive position. That position allowed the Pats to trail in the contest for less than a minute (11-10 late in the first quarter) and limit the Chickasaws to an 18 of 53 mark from the field, including a 5 of 20 showing from three-point range. Marion’s improved defense had Clay thinking back on his days as a young teacher. “When I got out of college and just started teaching, we were taught to use the method called ‘Teach to the Objective,’ or T2O,” Clay explained. “In T2O, you put the learning on the learner. So with our fellas, I’ve been making them bring in a scouting report themselves. We watch the games, we watch their players so they bring me a scouting report of what you see on the floor, and how we want to stop it. Now our guys are invested and I feel like it’s made some difference for us.” Marion finished the first quarter on a 6-0 run to lead 15-11, but was able to push ahead 29-20 at halftime thanks to Blytheville hitting just 3 field goals in that stanza. Senior forward Marlon Warren nearly outscored Blytheville alone in the second quarter as the Hughes native scored 5 of his game-high 22 points in period #2. He did so on an array of drives to the basket, including a pair of occasions when he collected a rebound and a steal on the defensive end of the floor and went coast-to-coast for a lay-up on offense. “I just wanted to take what they gave me. Anytime I saw a gap, I wanted to attack the rim,” Warren explained after shooting an efficient 9 of 14 from the field, while also leading Marion with 6 rebounds. Latham’s triple would give Marion its first 20-point lead of the game in the third quarter, and the Pats would claim as much as a 24-point advantage in the fourth frame before settling for the final. Shaun Doss also hit double-figures for the Pats, hitting for 17 points and 3 boards. Blytheville got 11 from A.J. Love and Patrick Beasley and 7 from Tony Newman. Marion will play for the Badger Christmas Tournament title tonight when they square off against Class 5A Maumelle at 8:30 p.m. Maumelle lost in the 2015 Class 5A state final to Little Rock McClellan and is led by East Carolina commit Shawn Williams. Clay wasn’t bashful about what a potential holiday tournament title would mean to his team. A win against Maumelle would launch the Pats to 6-5 overall before opening league play on Friday, January 8. “That would be huge because we do play a tough non-conference schedule, but I think it makes us better,” the veteran coach explained.