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Slow start dooms Giants in regional loss to Hamilton Heights

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

COLUMBIA CITY — There wasn’t much difference between Hamilton Heights and Marion in Saturday’s girls basketball regional semifinal.

For three quarters there was no difference, but unfortunately for the Giants, a slow start made all the difference in the world. 

Hamilton Heights made 6-of-8 field goals in the first quarter while limiting Marion to 0-for-4. The Huskies also forced five turnovers in jumping out to a 15-2 lead after eight minutes. That 13-point advantage would rise and fall over the final 24 minutes, but when the final horn sounded, Hamilton Heights had a earned a 50-37 win over the Giants. 

Hamilton Heights found a way to do something other team’s had little success in doing all season against the Giants -- slowing Marion’s talented post duo of Ra Shaya Kyle and Jazmyn Turner. Huskies’ coach Keegan Cherry knew Kyle and Turner were going to be a handful, so he had his team clog the lane as much as possible to limit touches for the pair.

“We also knew (Ellie Vermilion and Del’Reann Horton) were good shooters too, so we decided to play off (Marekeisha Jackson) to start and kept that girl in the lane,” Cherry said. “The girls did an excellent job of executing that game plan. We rebounded well too.”

The Huskies game plan worked to near perfection in the first half.

Kyle and Turner entered Saturday averaging better than 15 points per game, but took only one shot between them through the first 16 minutes and accounted for only two points. Vermilion, Marion’s third leading scorer on the season, was also held scoreless on only two shot attempts.

But Jackson and Ayana Harvey each scored four points, and Horton drained the Giants’ only 3-pointer in the second quarter, as Marion went to the half trailing 24-13.

“Everybody doubles and triples Ra Shaya. What we did today that hurt us is we were slow with our rotations with the ball,” said Marion coach Lawrence Jordan. “We’re supposed to take the ball from the wing to the top to the opposite side. For whatever reason, the ball was sticking and we were looking, looking, looking and trying pound it in when it just wasn’t there. We got stagnant on offense and that’s what dug us the hole.

“That and their penetration.”

Hamilton Heights’ senior point guard Lexi Branham and sophomore off guard Bayleigh Runner were very effective at controlling the tempo of the game.  

Jordan said he saw how Hamilton Heights liked to play its offense in scouting the Huskies. Branham and Runner like to dribble penetrate and kick out to open three-point shooters. It was much the same on Saturday, except Runner took things into her own hands in the third quarter. 

“We weren’t in proper spacing and they beat us to the basket,” Jordan said. “But instead of kicking out they got all the way to the basket and finished on us.”

Runner scored 10 of her game-high 18 points in the third quarter, getting all four of her field goals on drives into the lane. She led an efficient Huskies offense by hitting 6-of-8 from the field and 6-of-7 from the line.

Hamilton Heights made a sizzling 69 percent (18-of-26) from the field as a team.

“Bailey Runner has been fantastic all year,” Cherry said. “Often times she gets overlooked because we talk so much about the three seniors and all the great things they do for us, and they do. When we get late in ball games with (Runner) and Lexi Branham, I’ve got a lot of faith in those two. If we need to work some clock and take the air out of it they do a pretty good job.”

And the fourth quarter consisted of a lot of Branham and Runner taking the air out of the ball. Hamilton Heights took only five field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, making four, and kept the Giants from drawing any closer than 11, at 41-30.

Marion had some success with its trapping defense in the final eight minutes, forcing five turnovers after the Huskies had only five through the first three quarters. But the Giants made just 3-of-13 shots over the last eight minutes to have a disappointing end to what had been a remarkable season. 

“(They’re) very fundamentally sound,” Jordan said of Hamilton Heights, noting he’d only seen Runner score four points in the three game films he’d seen. “She came out and scored 18 and played like an all-state player. We didn’t pay attention to details today. Time and time again both of their guards beat us to the basket and it was very frustrating.”

Turner led Marion with 10 points and Kyle added eight. Markeisha Jackson finished with six, Harvey had four, Kaylynn Scher and Horton had three each and Leilanu Jackson scored two. The Giants made 11-of-37 field goal attempts, including 1-of-9 from long range. The Giants connected on 14-of-19 from the free throw line.

Junior Lauryn Wiley finished with 10 points and senior Ana Collar scored nine for Hamilton Heights. Marion held the Huskies leading scorer, Taylor-bound senior Kayla Kirtley, to six, more than six below her average. Branham also finished with six points.

The high school careers of Scher, Del’Reann and Del’Rea Horton concluded on Saturday, but the three seniors all made key contributions in helping the Giants (21-5) win the program’s first sectional title since 1997 and 16 more wins than in 2016-17.

What Jordan hopes for his players that will return is simply more growth. The Marion coach said development from Jackson, Vermilion and his other guards will be crucial as he expects teams will continue to double and triple team Kyle and Turner next season.

“I’m very proud of my daughters. I wouldn’t trade this season in for nothing in the world,” Jordan said. “We had a lot of success but we’ve still got a lot of talent coming back. We’ll probably be better next year but teams will be looking out for us.”