After two thrilling semifinal wins the night before, fans of the Marionville Comets and Verona Wildcats packed the Marionville gym to the brim last Friday for the Class 2, District 11 championship game. And despite the Wildcats' 72-60 victory over the Comets early this season, it was the home team on top in the end, riding a hot streak and a home court advantage to a 55-48 win.
Having defeated the top seed of the tournament just 24 hours earlier, fourth-seeded Marionville came into the game with a confidence well-earned after winning 10 of its last 11 games. The Comets took the lead in the first minute of the contest and remained ahead at the end of the first quarter, but it was a tight game at 15-12.
An early three-pointer extended Marionville's lead to six points to start the second period, and the home team only got better from there. Senior Gavin Stanton personally took the game over in the quarter, racking up 20 points in the half and prompting a chant of "You can't stop him" from the Marionville crowd.
Stanton capped off the half by hitting one of three from the line to give the Comets a 10-point lead, 29-19, going into the intermission.
The competitiveness of the first quarter repeated itself to begin the third period, as Verona kept pace with the Comets until finally going on an 11-2 run to end the quarter. The Wildcats still trailed by six, but the Verona fans had reason to be hopeful with eight minutes to play.
Both teams were patient to begin the fourth quarter, after turnovers on each side's first possessions. Finally Stanton opened the scoring with an old-fashioned three-point play two minutes in, matched quickly by a trey from Caleb Hillhouse on the other end.
But Marionville added to its lead to make it 50-12 with three minutes remaining and the Wildcats looking tired.
In the final minute, Verona made an impressive push to get within six and then four with 39 seconds to go.
Forced to foul in order to have any chance, the Wildcats sent Marionville's Laythen Utke to the line with 16 seconds on the clock. And for the second night in a row, Utke was clutch, making one of two to make it a five-point game.
One more steal and two more Utke free throws with 10 seconds remaining put the game away for good, and the Comets and fans went wild at the full time buzzer, having pulled off an improbable championship run as the fourth seed.
Stanton, having made his mark on the game with 27 points to lead all scorers, lifted the championship plaque before being mobbed by teammates and fans.
For the Comets, Dominick Clevenger finished behind Stanton with 11 points, followed by nine by Josh Goodman. Utke finished with five, and Lake High added three.
Hillhouse was Verona's leader with 23 points, the only Wildcat in double-digits. Kolton Pinkly added eight, while Eddie Gutierrez scored seven. Anthony Martinez and Jaiden Carrasquillo scored three apiece, while Austin Valdez and Chris Werner added two each.
It was a disappointing ending for the Verona seniors, whose final season was their most successful to date with a final record of 23-6. The departures of Gutierrez, Martinez, Valdez, Pinkly, Hillhouse and Werner, along with Jorge Lara and Levi Paul, will leave Verona with few experienced options at the varsity level next season.
With the win, Marionville advanced to Wednesday's sectional game at Carthage. There, the Comets faced the Liberal Bulldogs, who came into the game with a record of 16-12.