What a win for the Red Devils.
What a fourth quarter for Kendal Baker.
And what a way for Richmond to grab the spotlight in front of a crammed Tiernan Center crowd that witnessed the Red Devils take full control of the North Central Conference.
Baker had ice in his veins in the fourth, draining three 3-pointers and scoring all 11 of his points then as the Red Devils won Friday’s battle of NCC unbeatens 57-53 over Marion.
“It’s a great win for us,” Baker said. “It gives us more confidence for the rest of the season.”
Richmond did not lack for confidence this night, nor did the Red Devils have a shortage of players to turn to when it counted in front of an estimated crowd of 5,800.
Baker, Davious Webster and Mike Tillman teamed to put the game away at the free-throw line. Isaiah Rader made a spectacular defensive play late to force a critical turnover. Joel Okafor kept the offense humming and Abdul Shabazz, Nick Thomas, Devin Thomas and Zach Lett all played key roles in Class 4A No. 11 RHS improving to 4-0 in the NCC and 12-1 overall.
Webster, Okafor and Rader had the primary jobs of keeping close watch on Indiana University recruit and Mr. Basketball candidate James Blackmon Jr.
The Marion senior led all scorers with 22 points, but it was well below his average of nearly 36 points.
Richmond made him earn every bit of it, too.
“We just did what we had to do,” Rader said. “We know we came to lock him down. We did what we had to do to win.”
One year ago, Richmond rallied from a 15-point deficit in the second half at Marion to down the Giants.
This time, it was a more modest eight-point hole the Devils had to dig out of.
Marion led 29-21 early in the third quarter, until a 6-0 run by Richmond closed the gap. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, it was 36-all.
It stayed close throughout. Richmond led 40-39 on a driving layup by Okafor with 6:17 left, but Marion quickly reclaimed the lead.
Enter Baker. The RHS senior made his first trey — and his first points of the game — with 5:54 left.
Then, he made another.
Baker’s third 3 gave RHS a 49-43 advantage with 2 minutes to play.
“I was thinking if I got the open shot to shoot it,” Baker said. “My team gives me all the confidence in the world, so does coach Luce. I was just shooting open shots.”
Making them, too. Baker was 3-of-3 from the field and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line in the final frame.
Marion pulled within one point, 52-51, with 1:09 to go, but Tillman made a free throw, and Webster followed with three more.
By the time Tillman took the line and swished his final free throw, there was 5.3 second remaining and the Red Devils had a four-point lead.
Blackmon Jr. took one last 3-point attempt, but it bounced harmlessly off the rim to set off the Richmond celebration.
“Our main focus was just coming out ready to play in front of a big crowd, and having fun,” Webster said.
Webster also had to focus on playing in foul trouble from the first quarter on. The junior was whistled for his second infraction less than 3 minutes into the game.
“I wasn’t trying to think about the fouls,” Webster said. “I feel like if I was talking about the fouls, it would stick in my head and make me more frustrated. Coach just got me out of the game, cleared my head a little bit and then I came back out focused and did my job.”
Tillman netted 12 for the Red Devils, with Webster and Baker both scoring 11.
Shabazz had seven points and eight rebounds, with Okafor scoring six to go with a team-high nine rebounds.
Rader also scored six, with Zach Lett adding four points.
“They did a great job in the fourth quarter of finding a way to finish the game,” said RHS coach Joe Luce. “They hit some big free throws and handled the ball. Ultimately we came up with some big rebounds.
“(Marion is a) fantastic team, a first-class team that I thought played awful hard and was a great challenge and a good win for us.”
Vijay Blackmon finished with 18 points for Marion (9-4, 3-1), while Blackmon Jr. had nine rebounds.
Blackmon Jr., who was named a McDonald’s All-American earlier this week, did much of his damage from the free-throw line. He was 12-of-12 there, to go with four field goals.
“You have to look at it as a team defensive effort. They did a great job of running at Blackmon, getting the ball out of his hands,” Luce said. “But then also getting back and recovering. We subbed, I thought, with the right patterns. Big sub by (assistant coach) Rick Wedlow to bring Isaiah in when he got that steal.
“Just a good team effort from our coaches, a good team effort from our players. Overall, I’m very proud of our guys.”
Richmond plays at Lafayette Jeff tonight.
“I thought we played with a lot of pride and represented our jersey well tonight,” Luce said.