BY DEAN HOCKNEY
The Kokomo Wildkats needed a signature win to bolster the squads confidence and send a message to the state that they were for real. Saturday night at Memorial Gymnasium, they got that win. After close losses to then Class 4A No. 1 North Central and current 3A No. 1 Muncie Central, the 13th-ranked Kokomo Wildkats executed one of its best performances of the season and downed 4A No. 2 Carmel 47-40 – and in the process ended a nine-game losing streak to the Greyhounds.
“Our guys are confident, but this is a win that earned us some respect while confirming our confidence to ourselves,” said Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley. “We can use this to stay hungry and keep making progress. But we don’t want the highlight of our season to be that we beat Carmel. We need to keep progressing.”
The game played like a chess match as Carmel had a plan to slow the Kats down on its own floor. Thus, many possessions consisted of five or more passes before one of the squads would look for a shot. The result was a game that featured eight lead changes, seven ties, and the biggest scoring margin being the seven points at the finish. McCauley said after the game he was proud of the way his team responded to the Carmel plan.
“What an outstanding game,” he said. “I am so pleased with the guy’s effort, their attitude and their execution. We did all three tonight – we played really hard, we played really smart and we played really together. Up and down the court, our guys made plays and executed. We followed our game plan to perfection and beat a really good, patient and disciplined Carmel team.”
The game was played at such a controlled pace that each team only committed eight turnovers and Kokomo shot just over 51-percent from the field. Kokomo and Carmel were knotted at seven after one quarter and the Kats held a 21-17 lead going into the halftime break.
“We came out focused and I thought we defended well in the first quarter of a possession game,” said McCauley. “Our guy’s picked up their assignments from the film and played it out on the floor.”
McCauley said the big difference may have been the way the Kats crashed the boards. Carmel had a pair of 6-5 players in the starting lineup, and with Kokomo’s D.J. Balentine the tallest Wildkat starter at 6-3, many thought the Greyhounds would dominate the glass. Not so.
“This weekend, our guys defended,” said McCauley of Kokomo’s wins Carmel and No. 20 New Castle on Friday night. “We beat two outstanding teams. We out-rebounded New Castle by 14 and Carmel by five – we’ll take a plus-19 on the weekend.”
Jalen Tinder played a huge role in the Kokomo victory, hitting all five shots he took en route to a team-leading 14-point, six rebound performance.
“Tinder was big, he really played to his strength and he played within himself,” said McCauley. “He was the recipient of a lot of nice passes because our penetration was so good it brought some guys off some screens. They put so much pressure on D.J. that it opened up some other players, like Tinder.”
McCauley also praised sophomore Tayler Persons, who scored eight of his 13 points in the final quarter to help seal the win for Kokomo. The 6-1 guard also had five rebounds.
"Tayler was also very efficient, and hit 5 of 5 free throws,” said the coach. “He had a couple of blocks and hit the free throws at the end to give us some breathing room. And D.J. only had seven points but didn’t force anything – that shows why he is an Indiana All-Star and Mr. Basketball in my opinion.”
Carmel was led in scoring by the 14 points from Sam Curts and 12 from Ben Gardner, who only hit 4 of his 13 attempts from the field.
Kokomo’s (11-3) schedule does not get any easier as a hungry Tipton squad visits Memorial Gym on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. The Blue Devils (11-1) are ranked No. 3 in Class 2A and feature 1,000 point scorer Mike Crawford. Last year, Tipton held the No. 1 ranking when Kokomo grabbed a 46-43 win.
“Every game we play is the biggest game,” said McCauley. “We will get everyone’s best shot and we have a big target on our back because we are a quality team. We will try and keep it rolling.”