CONNERSVILLE — The postseason doesn’t start for another month, but you could have fooled Mt. Vernon coach Travis Daugherty.
Locked in a nip-and-tuck battle with potential Class 4A Sectional 9 foe Connersville (13-4) on Friday night inside the historic Spartan Bowl, every possession was magnified and Daugherty’s Marauders converted just enough.
Winless in their prior two meetings, the Marauders (13-2) snapped their losing streak against the Spartans with a 44-38 road victory to open a back-to-back weekend.
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“Every game with them is that way,” Daugherty said. “They’re an epitome of a hard-nosed, well-coached team. We knew it was going to be a hard game, and if we see them again in the tournament, it will be that way once again.
“We showed a lot of resilience tonight.”
The win marked Mt. Vernon’s third against its sectional field with its lone loss coming against Hoosier Heritage Conference rival New Castle this season.
Mt. Vernon is now 8-3 in its series with Connersville, dating back 30 years, but the program’s fifth straight win required a 32-minute effort.
“Any time you come in here and win, it’s a solid win,” Daugherty said. “That’s a team that you need to play against from ahead because when you get behind, it’s hard to comeback.”
Juniors Erick Shepherd and James McCloud answered the call for Mt. Vernon.
Shepherd finished with a game-high 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the field and went 4-for-4 from the foul line. McCloud followed with 14 points, burying 6 of 10 attempts from the floor and both of his free throws.
The Marauders jumped out to a fast 6-0 lead in the first quarter behind two dominating plays by Shepherd. The 6-foot-6 forward scored off a steal and a thunderous two-handed dunk and capped the run with a blocked shot and a change in possession, which McCloud capped with a jumper.
The Spartans regrouped quickly and overtook the lead with an 11-0 run, highlighted by consecutive 3-pointers from Beau Isaacs, who finished with a team-high 13 points.
Down 11-6, the Marauders swung the game back in their direction with a 12-3 run before halftime as McCloud and Shepherd combined for eight points in the team’s 14-point frame.
“(Shepherd) made some plays in that second quarter that steadied us,” Daugherty said. “(McCloud) was great defensively for us tonight.”
Mt. Vernon shot 55 percent from the field (17 of 31) to cling to the lead in the second half after two ties and three lead changes through the first 16 minutes.
In the third quarter, the Marauders lead grew to seven points three times, but no margin was safe as Connersville’s shooters cut the deficit to one possession twice. The Spartans shot 46 percent from the floor and were 6 of 10 from 3-point range, but the Marauders’ defense held Grant Smith to six points, around half of his 12.8 points per game average.
Tyler Billups, who was averaging 11.8 points per game, was limited to six points.
Two crucial treys from Michael Ertel in the third quarter pushed the Marauders’ lead to 28-21, and Shepherd and McCloud closed out the fourth.
The tandem combined for all 14 of the Marauders points in the quarter and a steal and a layup by McCloud in the waning seconds finalized a 6-2 run before a Tyler Billups 3-pointer at the end.
Mt. Vernon hosts HHC foe Delta tonight at 7:30 p.m.