David Clark's young Marion Patriots grew up in a big way Thursday night.
Tim McDonald made two go-ahead free throws with 12.8 seconds left in the game, as Marion battled back from a huge first-half deficit to stun Little Rock Central 58-57 at Comets Gymnasium on the Mills High School campus.
The game was one of three Hoopin' 4 Hoodies contests that will be held over the next nine days to help celebrate Cigna Health Diabetes Awareness Month. North Little Rock will host rival Little Rock Parkview on Saturday, before Marion returns to Mills on Nov. 28 to face Fort Smith Northside.
But the Patriots made sure their initial trip to Central Arkansas was a successful one.
Marion (2-0) trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half until rallying.
"We're such a young team, but I knew when these kids were in junior high that they'd be good," said Clark, who is in his third season as coach. "I knew we'd have to replace the guards we had last year and depend on a younger group. But at the same time, we also knew we'd have a nice team.
"We're extremely deep, and the good thing about it is that we're not whole yet. We've got kids that will come in after football to help us out. Those football guys have been the core of our team for the last three years."
Reinforcements may be on the way, but the Patriots took a big step forward against Central. Junior forward Drew Kyzar scored 15 points and grabbed 8 rebounds, while McDonald, one of only a few seniors on the team, finished with 12 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals for Marion. Sophomore guard Ryan Forrest added 14 points.
Senior guard Corey Camper had 15 points and sophomore guard Bryson Warren ended with 13 for Central (2-1), which hit 11 of its first 17 shots and held a 35-19 lead with less than four minutes left in the second quarter. But the Tigers cooled off considerably as the game wore on. Senior guard Hudson Likens chipped in with 10 points.
According to Coach Brian Ross, Central also got out of rhythm, especially when play got more physical.
"I think we let the emotions get the best of us," he said. "When you get too emotional, you start doing things like missing free throws and lay-ups. I thought we played hard and tough the whole night.
"But we started to do uncharacteristic stuff and started missing shots that we normally make."
After going 13 of 23 from the field in the first half, the Tigers were just 5-of-24 shooting in the second half. Central also went 14 of 25 from the foul line, including just 2 of 8 in the fourth quarter.
Conversely, Marion was 11 of 23 over the first 16 minutes but was 7 of 19 from that point on and hit 22 of its 28 free throws.
The Patriots closed the first half on a 15-5 run to get within 40-34 by halftime. The Tigers continued to lead throughout the third quarter and well into the fourth until a free throw from sophomore guard Jayden Forrest put Marion ahead 52-51 with 4:43 left in the game.
Central regained the lead on its next possession after Warren nailed a 17-footer from the top of the key and held a 57-56 advantage with 42 seconds left in the game before McDonald's free throws gave Marion its one-point cushion. Central still had a chance to either tie the game or surge back ahead on the ensuing trip, but Camper missed two free throws with 7.4 seconds left.
The Tigers caught a break after a Marion turnover moments later, but Likens' shot was partially blocked following an inbound pass, allowing the Patriots to hold on.
"This was a good win for us," Clark said. "It got physical some, but they battled. We had a lot of guys that actually just got back today. We've got a lot of talent in east Arkansas, got a lot of good teams over there, and I think we showed that [Thursday]."