RUSSIAVILLE – The Indiana University Kokomo Cougars completed the third of a three-game home schedule before the Christmas break with, perhaps, their most intense game of the season. The Marian University Knights came to Western High School looking to finish a two-game sweep of the Cougars. Back on November 15, the Knights had manhandled the Cougars in a 30-point win.

Without question, IU Kokomo put up more of a fight this time, but Marian still departed with an 81-67 win. Coach Jace Thompson said he was pleased with the effort of his young squad.

“That was a tough team we just played,” Thompson said. “But I couldn’t be happier with the way our guys battled. They stuck to a game plan. I told them if they come out with that kind of intensity and consistency every night, we are going to be a hard team to beat.”

The Cougars pounced on the Knights from the start, forcing a Marian timeout just two minutes into the game. Jared Lawrence’s steal and layup at 17:50 forced the timeout and gave the Cougars a 6-2 lead.  Marian responded with a three-pointer out of the break and from there the fight was on. Neither team could gain the upper-hand and IU Kokomo’s 33-28 lead with 3:02 showing was the biggest lead of the first half.

Marian’s Alex Sylvester gave the Cougars fits all night from the outside. The senior guard started a 9-2 run by the visitors, and Matt Dickerson hit back-to-back layups to give the Knights a 35-33 lead with just over a minute left in the half. Lawrence tied the game with a layup at 1:08. A defensive break down let Marian’s Jake Stafford score with one second left to give the Knights a 37-35 lead at the half.

Headed to the locker room, Thompson was encouraged with his team’s effort – considering what happened the first time the teams met.

“When we were down there, we went in at the half down 16,” Thompson said. “We came out with more intensity this time, except for the first minute and a half. That was the only time they had more intensity than us.”

That first minute and a half would prove to be costly for the Cougars. The Knights rattled off eight straight points to open the second half. Suddenly, the scoreboard read 45-35 in favor of the visitors and IU Kokomo had a mountain to climb.

Brandon Larrick ended the drought for the Cougars, but the more experienced Marian squad took advantage of the cushion. IU Kokomo never came closer than three points and the Knights pulled away at the end to pick up the win.

The Cougars were led by Anthony Graves with 19 points and Nathaniel Carroll with 17 points.

Turning a 30-point loss into a 14-point loss in less than month might not seem like much of a victory, but for Thompson’s team, it definitely shows it is headed in the right direction.

“We had some starters hurt the first time we played them, but that wasn’t the main difference,” he said. “We had time to work on other stuff and guys are buying into it and we are playing together. That is what the difference was.  It showed. They just need to get a little more experience.”

According to Thompson, playing the tougher teams is the only way to go.

“You have to have a few along the way where you can go in and dictate what you want to do,” Thompson said.  “But we’ve got to earn it against the better teams. This group of freshmen just showed that two years from now it is going to be hard for us to find a schedule. They are a special group and I really think people aren’t going to want to play them. “

The Cougars travel to Ancilla College on Saturday before taking an extended break for the holidays. Thompson said the break is coming at the right time.

“We need a little bit of time for freshmen finals week,” he said. “They’ve never been through that before. And we need a time to recruit. My biggest concern right now is the freshman wall. They could all hit the wall at once. This is going to give a chance to get their legs back and come back and work on some fundamentals over the break. I think people will see that in the second half of the season they will play more like sophomores.”

(Story by Steve Geiselman, IU Kokomo)

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