(SPORTS JOURNAL WEB EXCLUSIVE)
BY DEAN HOCKNEY
GARY – The debut of the Indiana University Kokomo men’s basketball program turned out to be a stunner. The unheralded Cougars – who are only playing as a club team this year as it waits for admission into the NAIA level – traveled to the Steel City and shocked the Indiana University Northwest Redhawks, 82-76. While IUK head coach Jace Thompson knew his team would find some success in its inaugural season, he wasn’t sure it would come this early.
“I guess the bar is set pretty high now,” said Thompson, moments after the thrilling victory. “Our guys are committed. This is a great team win for all of our guys – from the top down. It shows the hard work paid off.”
IUK showed no signs of being an inexperienced team, and in fact, started strong. Three minutes into the game, the Cougars led 9-8 and held that lead for nearly seven minutes. Once the Redhawks grabbed a 19-17 lead, it looked as though they were ready to run away with the game, especially after they opened a 34-26 advantage. But tough play by the Cougar defense – specifically Brandon Larrick crashing the boards – allowed IUK to score eight unanswered points to tie the game at 34 and go into the halftime locker room down by one, 37-36.
“There is an old chalkboard in this locker room (at IU Northwest) and most places you go to it is a dry erase boards,” said Thompson as he explained what he told his players. “It is just like kindergarten, you have been playing your whole life and you just need to go out there and play the game. They did and they executed.”
The Cougars jumped right back into the lead early in the second half, and led 45-40 at the 16:00 mark after a Graves three-pointer. But again, the Redhawks showed its maturity and reclaimed the lead after a 6-0 run – and from there the two teams battled until IUK grabbed a 70-69 lead on a Jared Lawrence drive with 4:45 left in the game. That would be the final lead change as the Cougars controlled the tempo of the final five minutes, hit clutch free throws (28-39 for the game), and walked away victorious for the first time in the programs young history.
“They fouled the right people for us, and it (free throw shooting) was very solid,” said Thompson. “Anthony Graves (15 for 18) is our one veteran player and hit his (free throws) and Brandon Larrick (8 for 11) is ice at the line. They got the job done. And Larrick owned the boards. Jake Robertson was shaky out of the gate, but took the ball in the second half and played well – he will probably be our point guard this year.”
Anthony Graves led the Cougars to victory with 31 points and 12 rebounds, while freshman Brandon Larrick added 10 points and 12 boards and Aaron Knupp 12 points for the winners.
“We have big hopes for the program, and obviously, coming out and getting our first win is huge,” said Larrick. “Coach told me I have to be a big guy and I went after every rebound that was there. And it comes down to free throws at the end and we hit ours. And we owe a lot to Anthony Graves, he came out today on fire.”
IUK stays on the road for two more games – at Calumet College of St. Joseph on Nov. 4 and St. Francis of Chicago the following day – before kicking off its home campaign at Western High School on Nov. 12. The Cougars will host Indiana Dabney University at 2 p.m.