BY DEAN HOCKNEY
MARION – For the second consecutive year, the Kokomo Wildkats and the Western Panthers played in the Sweet Sixteen round of the annual IHSAA tournament. Last year, both Kokomo and Western won the morning game of their respective regionals to advance to the Elite Eight. But that was last year and 2012 did not produce the same results as the Kats lost to Carmel and Western came up short against Andrean.
For No. 7-ranked Kokomo (20-5), the 52-48 loss to No. 4 Carmel (21-4) was a disappointing ending to a great season that saw the Kats win 20 games for the second straight year. During the post-game interview, one could see the frustration in the face of Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley, who led Kokomo to the state championship game a year ago.
“First of all, I am really proud of the guys,” said McCauley following the loss in the Marion Regional at the high school’s Bill Green Arena. “Obviously, it is a very tough loss. Carmel is a very good team and we thought we were right there. We got off to such a good start offensively, but defensively we lost a little. We just couldn’t stretch the early lead.”
Kokomo grabbed an early 10-3 lead and looked like they might stretch it even further, but Sam Curts developed a hot first quarter shooting touch, hitting four 3-pointers en route to a 16-16 tie after one. But then the scoring stopped as the teams combined for 11 second quarter points and the Kats led 22-21 at the break. Curts hit his sixth and final 3-pointer in the third stanza as Carmel opened a 35-31 lead going into the fourth period.
“Our offense got stagnant and our shot selection wasn’t the greatest,” said McCauley. “Then they went inside and got (Shawn) Heffern open for some easy baskets. He is a strong Division I football player (Indiana University). And then we got the lead in the fourth quarter with 2:41 to go on Tayler (Persons) free throw, but they came back with a layup.”
Fundamentals can win basketball games, and those fundamentals hurt the Kats. When Persons hit his two free throws, it snapped a streak of three consecutive fourth quarter charity stripe misses for Kokomo. Instead of a one-point lead, the Kats might have had a two-possession lead.
“We got the lead with 2:41, but we also had a stretch where we missed three straight free throws, and close games always come down to one or two possessions and they come down to free throws,” said McCauley. “We were 6 of 11 (including 2-5 in the fourth quarter from the charity stripe) and they were 11 of 14 for the game (9 of 13 in fourth quarter).”
Kokomo’s Indiana All-Star candidate D.J. Balentine finished his spectacular Wildkat career with 12 points. During the game, he passed Tim McFarland for third place on the Kats all-time scoring list with 1,280 career points. Tayler Persons led Kokomo with 15 points. Curts finished with 22 points for Carmel.
Carmel topped Homestead 48-39 in the nightcap to claim the regional trophy and advance to Saturday’s semi-state competition.
WESTERN FALLS TO ANDREAN
The No. 12-ranked Western Panthers (19-6) traveled to the Plymouth Regional knowing that they would have to play its best basketball against No. 3 Andrean if the squad wanted to return to the Elite Eight. It didn’t happen as Western fell 65-38.
“Let’s get one thing out there; Andrean is a very good basketball team,” said Western head coach Andy Weaver. “They are (21-3 after the regional final game), and to beat a basketball team like that, you are going to have to play outstanding and execute beyond you’re A game. Unfortunately for us, we were not on our A game.”
The Panthers needed to come out on all cylinders against Andrean, but trailed by three after one quarter (11-8). The Fighting 59ers strength and size advantage started to prove a problem in the second stanza, and Andrean led 32-22 at the half. With Western knowing they were still in the game, the 59ers squashed any thoughts of a Panther comeback by scoring the first six points after the break and had a 14-6 run over the first 4:20 of the stanza.
“I thought we battled in the first quarter but we didn’t shoot the ball well,” said Weaver following the loss. “We only had four turnovers in the first half, which we will take, but at the same time we gave up 21 points. But it was only 10 at halftime. And then in the third quarter we came out and we missed two layups. You can’t start the quarter by missing two inside shots. So any type of momentum to cut into that 10 point lead is squandered right there.”
The shooting woes were the tale for Western as they hit just 14 of 49 shots (29-percent) while Andrean hit a respectable 22 of 43 (51-percent). John Capps led the way for Western with 17 points and was the only Panther in double digits.
Andrean lost to No. 7 Mishawaka Marian 82-62 in the regional championship game.
TIPTON ADVANCES TO FINAL FOUR
For the second consecutive season, the No. 7-ranked Tipton Blue Devils are regional champions and will return to the IHSAA Class 2A Final Four – this time with a trip to the North Semi-State at Lafayette Jefferson High School this Saturday at 3:15 p.m. Tipton (24-3) downed Northfield 53-38 for the right to battle Gary’s No. 5-ranked Thea Bowman Leadership Academy (16-8). The winner will earn a trip to the 2A state finals a week from Saturday at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (see page 8 for a semi-state preview).
In the Tipton Regional finals, the Blue Devils never trailed as they grabbed an early 11-9 lead and 23-20 halftime advantage. Tipton then held Northfield (22-4) scoreless for the nearly the first six minutes of the second half as the Norsemen saw a 20-game winning streak snapped in the loss.
The Blue Devils were led by junior Mike Crawford’s 18 points on 9 for 12 shooting.
The Blue Devils advanced to the regional final thanks to a 75-56 win over Fountain Central in the regional semi-final.
(Douglas Hockney contributed to this story)