By Chuck Livingston Sports Editor
The Wonder Golden Lions have gotten pretty good at winning tight ballgames. So it was only fitting that the West Memphis outfit ended their 2015-2016 with another one. Marcus Whitaker grabbed a loose ball and banked home a jump shot with .8 seconds remaining to give Wonder (16-5 overall) the margin it needed to win the 2016 7A/6A-East district title by topping Marion, 36-35, at Lehr Arena. The bucket allowed the Golden Lions to come all the way back after trailing 35-32 with 1:20 left in the ballgame. For his efforts during Wonder’s three-game run through the district tournament, freshman point guard Cavin Paige was named the most outstanding player of the postseason tournament. Paige scored four points in the final, while adding three assists and a rebound, but he quarterbacked the Wonder offense to just three turnovers in the game. It was Paige that set up Whitaker’s game-winner. Wonder’s diminutive point guard dribbled down the right side of the lane, only to see Marion guard Khiron Davis get a hand on the ball as Paige went to drive into the paint. The ball bounced off of a Marion defender, towards half-court, where it was fielded by Whitaker. The burly Golden Lion took one step backward and got his dagger off just in time to win the game for Wonder. Whitaker would score eight points for Wonder, while also getting to a team-high nine rebounds. “During the timeout, I told our guys to just relax and we’re gonna spread the floor out, because I only wanted guys out there that could get to the basket,” explained Wonder head coach Kwame Brown. “I told them whatever you do, just get to the basket. I guess we just feel really vindicated, because we’ve worked so hard. The kids have, the coaches have, just everyone.” It was the second consecutive tournament game in which Wonder won on a late game-winner. The Golden Lions were able to slip Jonesboro MacArthur in the semifinals when Kenneth Phillips collected an offensive rebound, scored on a lay-up and drew a foul on the play, as well. Phillips hit his free throw, and Wonder advanced to the finals 33-32, avenging its worst loss of the season in the process. The story for Marion was foul trouble. The Pats saw its two leading scorers – Timothy Ceaser and Keyshawn Woods – miss extended time during the contest due to foul trouble. In fact, Ceaser picked up two quick ones in the first quarter, while Woods collected two in quick succession in the third quarter. Ceaser would finish the game with four fouls and Woods with three. Still, the Junior Patriots had their chances. Marion led 21-20 at halftime, and despite seeing Woods and Ceaser hitting the bench with fouls in the third, got to the fourth quarter tied at 29-29. Keeping Marion afloat during that stretch was the play of 8th-grader Detrick Reeves Jr. Reeves would post game-high totals of 15 points and 12 rebounds in the loss. It was Reeves that gave Marion a three-point lead in the fourth quarter when the lanky forward scored on a lay-up with 1:20 remaining. However, Whitaker would score the game’s final four points, delivering the title to the Golden Lions. “We really tried to execute on the floor (without Ceaser and Woods),” explained Marion head coach Johnny Washington. “But without those two, that hurts us a bunch. But, we still have plenty of players that are able to execute. I think we did a good job without them. It’s a tough loss, but that’s the way it rolls sometimes, especially on a last-second shot.” Following Whitaker’s jumper to get Wonder within a point with 44.2 seconds left, the teams swapped missed shots, leaving Wonder with the ball and 10.7 seconds on the clock, which is what set up the final sequence of events. “We couldn’t have done this without our coaches, Jesse MacGregor, Ashley Stinson and Dewayne Streits,” Brown said. “All of those coaches worked our kids so hard, and its paid off.” Wonder (21-5 overall) and Marion (18-2 overall) had split their two meetings during the regular season, with the Golden Lions snapping a long Marion winning streak in Patriot Arena in late January. The teams have now played six times in the past two seasons, each winning three times. It was the second straight season in which the tournament’s No. 3 seed won the district title on its own floor. Marion finished in a three-way tie for first place in the district last season, but was the third seed due to losing the tiebreaker to Wonder and Jonesboro MacArthur. Marion would beat West to win last year’s title.