BELLEVILLE -- The Marion Wildcats faced all kinds of weirdness Friday night in a 58-45 loss to Belleville's Althoff Catholic High School that seemed decided just moments after the opening tip.
"It was an odd game," said Marion coach Gus Gillespie, who was choosing his words safely and putting it mildly.
Using a rough-and-tumble defensive style from the start, the Crusaders jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the South Seven Conference game. By the time Marion got its second basket, leading scorer Jackson Connor already had two fouls even though Althoff was forcing most of the contact.
Jack Bruening's basket at the buzzer gave the Crusaders a 16-6 lead going into the second quarter. Connor hit two free throws for the first points of the frame and they would turn out to be the junior's only points of the night.
Connor, who is averaging 18.5 points per game and recently went over the 1,000-point mark for his career, was called for his third foul while simply posting up with five minutes left in the half. It came right after Brett Lewis was also given his third foul.
William Ache's layup gave Althoff a 23-10 lead moments later, and Marion's Boston Ziegler put in a layup and baseline jumper to cut into the lead but Mack Harris stuck in a putback in the final seconds to put the Crusaders up 28-14 at the half.
Bruening hit a 3-pointer for the first basket of the third and Althoff had its biggest lead of the game with a 17-point margin. Marion was about to go on a comeback, officially flipping the script from the first meeting when the Wildcats played well early but Althoff surged for the final 12 minutes to win.
"The first game we really played with them until about four minutes to go in the third quarter and then they put it on us," Gillespie said. "Tonight they came out very aggressive and the officials let them set the tone in how the game was going to be played and that hurt us."
Points from Lewis, Mitchell Jackson and Ziegler helped cut the deficit back to 12 before Connor fouled out with 58.6 seconds left in the third quarter. Althoff took a 37-25 lead into the fourth, when Frankie Horner was also given his fifth foul.
"We were in foul trouble the whole night," Gillespie said. "I was very proud of our guys in the second half. I thought we battled back. We were able to hang in there and fight."
Marion got as close as 45-36 after Cavan Cameron stole the ball and fed Rayzhaun Bardo for a layup, his only points of the game, with the clock stopping at 3:16.
Althoff answered with a basket from big man Mack Harris, then Ziegler scored his 20th point before Harris scored again. Lewis dropped in a shot after Daulton Burgner missed a 1-and-1 free throw and it was down to nine again at 49-40, but now just 1:30 remained.
Ziegler hit a 3-pointer in the remaining time to finish with 23 points and Lewis scored again to finish with nine. After that, Horner and Jackson had four, Bardo and Connor both had two and Cameron chipped in a free throw.
Bruening led Althoff with 14 points. Burgner added 13 and Ethyn Brown had 11 for the Crusaders, who don't have a senior on their roster.
Althoff improved to 14-11 overall and 7-2 in the South Seven to clinch at least a share of the conference title. Marion dropped to 16-12 and 1-7 after having its four-game win streak snapped.
"Obviously if they're winning the conference they're a good team," Gillespie said. "I thought we did a lot of things. And we didn't break one over here."
Marion plays at Carbondale this coming Friday.