CARBONDALE -- Scripts like this normally get tossed in the trash for being unbelievable.
The Marion High School boys basketball team trailed rival Carbondale by 11 points with six minutes to go in Friday night's championship game of the Carbondale 3A Regional, but held the Terriers scoreless the rest of the way on their own floor and won 61-59 to advance to the Centralia Sectional.
Jaden Lacy's driving layup between two defenders with less than 20 seconds left was the difference, a spectacular basket that capped an incredible 13-0 game-closing run by the Wildcats.
Clayton Greer missed a long 3-point attempt for the Terriers in the final seconds, a shot rebounded by Marion's Terrell Henderson as the clock ran out.
"Our coach knew we could win the game," Lacy said, speaking of first-year head coach Gus Gillespie. "He's been telling us all week that we can compete. Everyone else has been counting us out but not him."
How it happened is pretty amazing but first here are some numbers and pertinent information:
• Marion is now 20-11 and has recorded the first 20-win season for the school since the 2004-05 season. Rich Herrin was in his third year of coaching the Wildcats -- they went 6-22 the previous season.
• Marion's last regional championship came in the 2013-14 season. It was also against Carbondale but on Herrin's court. Before that, the Wildcats hadn't won a regional title since 1990.
• Marion now faces Columbia on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in the Centralia Sectional's first semifinal game. Columbia is 20-11 and beat previously-undefeated Alton Marquette, 55-53 in overtime, to win the Waterloo Regional title. The other semifinal will feature Centralia against East St. Louis on Wednesday.
Carbondale, which finishes with a 21-8 record, went on an early 12-0 run and had a 14-5 lead over the Wildcats in the first quarter. Marion pulled within two at 19-17 on a 3-pointer by Mitchell Jackson in the second period, but Darius Beane got rolling after that.
Beane, a talented senior standout headed just a few blocks away to Southern Illinois University, scored 11 points over the final five minutes of the first half, including a two-handed monster putback slam that gave Carbondale a 33-25 lead at the break.
Beane was just getting started. The 6-foot-4 guard with a sick assortment of moves dropped in 14 more points in the third quarter, scoring with stepbacks and pull-ups and just straight dagger jumpers. With a 3-pointer at the 1:28 mark of the period, the Terriers had a 55-41 lead and Beane had 27 points.
"Beane was having a monster game and he showed why he's a special player," Gillespie said. "But our kids rose up and fought. I'm proud of them."
Marion senior David Fletcher hit a 3-pointer and Justin Saddoris split a pair of free throws to cut the margin to 55-45 at the end of the third quarter.
Carbondale's James Baltz scored a putback to start the fourth, then Fletcher drilled another clutch trey. And the next basket, which would be the last for Beane in his brilliant 29-point performance, would turn out to be Carbondale's last points of the night.
The Terriers were ahead 59-48 with six minutes to play and didn't score again as Marion went to a trapping triangle defense that led to four Carbondale turnovers and four other stops.
"We went to the trap and offensive rebounds were killing us and we finally didn't let them continue to do that," Gillespie said. "We got them on their heels a little and I think the trap late in the game obviously changed the outcome. We just got after them.
"We were able to make them turn it over and our kids got confident."
But the Wildcats still had to score to climb out of that double-digit hole and did it behind Saddoris, the team's steady senior point guard, and sophomore Jackson Connor, who has battled foul trouble in recent games.
The game-closing run started with Saddoris sinking a 3-pointer. Then it was Connor hitting a shot, then Saddoris driving for a layup. Connor scored again after a stop and Marion was suddenly within two with 2:31 left.
"After the third quarter, I didn't think we had a chance," Saddoris said. "But our coach told us to go pressure them. It was just, it was amazing. That was awesome."
After another turnover, Connor drew a foul from Carbondale's Zanidrelle Johnson. Marion was only in the single bonus but Connor swished the first free throw to earn a second and swished it as well to tie the game at 59 with the clock showing 2:12 remaining.
Those were two of just five free throws for the Wildcats in the entire game. Carbondale was 11 of 12 at the charity stripe.
With the game tied and a large Marion crowd whipped into a frenzy, Lacy appeared to come up with a steal and would've had a runaway dunk but was called for a foul. The Terriers weren't in the bonus, though, and turned the ball over against the Wildcats' trapping with 1:32 left on the clock.
"We just wanted to get it out of Darius's hands and force the other guys to make a play," Saddoris said. "And fortunately for us -- they didn't."
Marion nearly coughed up the ball when Lacy tried to make a pass into the post that was tipped but during a diving scrum Gillespie was able to call his team's final timeout with 1:04 left.
The Wildcats worked the clock down and Lacy found a seam on the right side, drove hard to the basket and scored between Beane and Baltz with a layup off the backboard.
"A big drive," Gillespie said. "He went up strong and put it in. Then we had to hold on for one more possession. It was a great game."
Lacy's basket made the crowd erupt, including a large section of Marion students on the other end of the court, who moments later got to join the celebration on the floor.
"I could see Jackson had his guy sealed and I knew I could beat anybody one on one. So I just took it," Lacy said. "I was just trying to win the ballgame. Nothing more, nothing less. I just wanted the W."
Saddoris led the Wildcats with 18 points and Connor had 14. Lacy finished with 12, eight of them coming in the third quarter. Fletcher had six and both Henderson and Cole Schafer had four -- and those three were huge in the rebounding area.
Beane led all scorers with 29, while Greer had nine of his 11 in the first quarter and Johnson had eight.
Lacy, one of six Marion seniors, said the team is "on a mission" and with the way the Wildcats are currently playing, there are certainly no limits to how far they can go from here.
The next stop is Centralia on Tuesday night.
"Anything's possible," Saddoris said. "We're ready for anything."