KATS STOP PANTHERS IN SEASON OPENER

Kokomo's D.J. Balentine hits one of his three 3-pointers against Western. (SJ Photo: WILLIAM GIBSON)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

It had all of the makings of being a classic opener to the boys high school basketball season: Two ranked teams, a student-led charity challenge and nearly 3,500 spectators in historic Memorial Gymnasium. And for the first 24 minutes, it  lived up to its billing. But when the teams returned to the floor after halftime, it was all Kokomo as the Class 4A No. 3-ranked Wildkats soundly defeated Class 3A No. 13 Western 82-57.

The Panthers started strong and looked like they would give the Kats fits. After Kokomo took an early 5-2 lead on a D.J. Balentine 3-pointer, Quin Fields answered with his own triple and the Panthers raced to a 13-7 lead through the first quarter as four Western starters found the scoring column in the first eight minutes.

“We came out well in the first quarter and played very well defensively,” said Western head coach Andy Weaver. “But in the second quarter, we struggled defensively. We held D.J. to five points, which was good, but (Erik) Bowen played really well.”

The second quarter saw the defending Class 4A state runners-up gain their legs and composure. After Western stretched its lead to eight, Kokomo slowly chipped away behind the play of Bowen. The 6-5 sophomore started the junior varsity contest, where he played six minutes and did not score. But in the second quarter of the varsity game, he electrified a lackluster Kokomo offense by scoring seven points, including a long 3-pointer that seemed to turn the game in the Kats favor. By the time the halftime horn sounded, Kokomo was on a 21-11 run and held a 28-26 lead at the break.

“Erik did a great job, especially when we were struggling offensively in the first half,” said Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley. “He hit that three in the corner to keep it close. He did a good job in the middle and has a nice jump shot and good hands. He did a good job of giving us a boost. He even did a good job after he came back from a bloody nose.”

When Kokomo returned to the floor in the third quarter, they looked like a different team. Utilizing a stifling, quick defense, Kokomo forced four Western turnovers in the first 90 seconds – forcing Weaver to call a pair of timeouts in an effort to stop the bleeding. It didn’t work. For eight minutes, Kokomo pressed the Panthers, forcing 10 turnovers while outscoring Western 24-12 en route to a 52-38 lead after three quarters. For the game, Kokomo scored 28 points off 18 Panther turnovers.

“It turned very quickly at the start of the third quarter,” said Weaver. “We really struggled against their man run-and-jump press. They really turned that on. undamentally, you have to be sound against that. You can’t reverse dribble, and we probably reverse dribbled four or five times that resulted in turnovers.”

Kokomo didn’t slow down in the fourth stanza, lighting the nets for another 30 points. A tired Panther defense could not keep up with Indiana All-Star candidate Balentine, who hit a pair of triples and 13 points in the fourth period. Kokomo also didn’t hurt themselves from the line as they hit all eight fourth quarter free throws on a night that saw the Kats hit 17 of 19 overall – a vast improvement for a team that only hit 62-percent a year ago.

“Our guys stepped up with confidence, had good focus, and knocked down the free throws,” said McCauley. “We just have to make sure we go through the same routine.”

The Kats were led by the 22 points from Balentine. LaBradford Sebree added 18, Jalen Tinder 13 and tied with a game-high nine rebounds, Bowen 13 and Tayler Persons 10. For Western, Fields knocked home 15 points, Evan Warden 13 and Ben Constable scored 12 points and nine boards.

The Kats return to Memorial Gymnasium Saturday night, hosting Westfield for a 6 p.m. junior varsity start. Western is off this weekend.

NOTE: The Kokomo versus Western Sock Challenge, benefitting the Kokomo Rescue Mission, went to the Panthers. While Western scored the victory, the schools combined to collect more than 10,000 pairs of new socks for the local charity.

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