RETURN TRIPS: KATS, PANTHERS REPEAT AS SECTIONAL CHAMPS

The Western Panthers celebrate its second consecutive sectional championship. (Photo by WILLIAM GIBSON)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

For the second consecutive year, the Kokomo Wildkats and the Western Panthers have captured sectional championships and will advance to the Sweet Sixteen regional round of the IHSAA boys basketball tournament. Class 4A No. 7 and tourney host Kokomo (20-4) moves on thanks to a dominating 83-59 victory over Logansport, and Class 3A No. 12 Western (19-5) advances after holding-off a stubborn host Twin Lakes squad, 54-52.

For the Panthers, it marks the sixth sectional title for head coach Andy Weaver and the third time his squad has pulled a repeat championship (2003-2004 and 2006-2007). But it was not an easy route to the trophy as the host Indians (15-9) proved a handful in the finale.

“I knew before the draw that whoever had to play Twin Lakes on this floor, they were going to be tough,” said Weaver. “They are gritty and they are tough – they never make a basketball game pretty.”

Weaver said that after the Panthers cruised through Peru (64-39) and West Lafayette (58-43), he knew the championship was not going to be as easy. Twin Lakes is known for defending its home floor, having a good student section, and playing tough basketball.

“I knew this was not going to be one of those types of game. Our total emphasis was going to be rebound, rebound, rebound and interior defense,” said Weaver. “Our guys persevered and found a way; it was a total team effort.”

The Panthers jumped to an early 18-14 lead and led at the half 29-28. They outscored Twin Lakes 14-9 in the third stanza to take a six point lead into the final quarter and outlasted an Indian rally for the win.

“I said here they come, and then they got the lead on us at 49-48 and 52-51,” said Weaver of the TL rally, in which the Indians scored seven straight points. Evan Warden then hit a basket at the 2:30-mark to give the Panthers a 53-52 lead. Western held Twin Lakes scoreless for the final three minutes to secure the victory and hoist the trophy.

“We knew it was going to be tough but we pulled the plays out when we needed to,” said Western senior John Capps.

Matt Orr led the Panthers with 14 points, followed by Warden and Ben Constable with 12.

Western will play No. 3 Andrean Saturday in the Plymouth Regional. See page 10 for a preview of the game.

KATS WIN TITLE FOR THE 72ND TIME

To no one’s surprise, the defending Class 4A state runners-up Kokomo Wildkats rolled through its own sectional to claim the school’s IHSAA record 72nd boys basketball sectional championship. Kokomo won its two sectional games by a whopping 54 points while securing the program’s second straight 20-win season and 23rd overall. Kokomo has recorded back-to-back 20-win seasons six times in 109 years, including five in a row from 1958-1962.

“It is great to win it here in front of the fans,” said Kokomo’s Indiana All-Star candidate D.J. Balentine, who is three shy of becoming the third greatest scorer in Kokomo history behind legends Jim “Goose” Ligon and Jimmy Rayl. “It is the most sectional wins (in state history) and it is a great honor.”

Sophomore Tayler Persons, who scored 20 points in Kokomo’s semi-final win over McCutcheon (64-34), echoed Balentine’s comments.

“It is so awesome; 72 championships is just so awesome,” said Persons. “My freshman year we go to state, and now we are here (in the Sweet Sixteen); it is just an amazing feeling.”

Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley, who is leading the Kats to its second consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance, talked about the pressure his team was under.

“All of the pressure was on us in this tournament,” he said. “We are at home after playing a tough season, a phenomenal season. But they know it is a one game series in the sectionals, and they came out and played hard. They played smart and played together.”

The coach said he was pleased with aspects of Kokomo’s game that did not include scoring field goals.

“We have rebounded well the past two games, and we have defended well,” he said. “We are playing together offensively and we are getting to the free throw line. We got to the line 22 times (against McCutcheon) and 34 times tonight (against Logansport). Hopefully we can keep making improvements.”

Kokomo will play No. 4 Carmel in the opening game of the Marion Regional. See page 10 for a preview of the game.

BLUE DEVILS TAKE DOWN COMETS

For eight minutes, it appeared the miracle run of the Eastern Comets in the Class 2A Tipton Sectional might continue. Fresh off a 78-70 overtime upset win against Taylor, the Comets (5-17) trailed No. 7 Tipton by a single point, 12-11. But that is where the run ended as Mike Crawford scored eight points in a 24-0 second quarter Tipton run as the Blue Devils (22-3) earned a berth in its own regional with a 66-38 victory.

Tipton plays Fountain Central (8-14) in game two of the Tipton Regional, following the 10 a.m. Northfield (21-3) versus Frankton (14-10) contest. The championship is set for 8 p.m.

Interesting Tipton Regional note: Frankton will play in its first-ever regional after defeating Muncie Burris 53-45 for the school’s first boys basketball sectional championship in 90 years of IHSAA membership.

(Douglas Hockney contributed to this story)

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