BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Total domination! That may be the best way to describe Kokomo’s run through the Coca-Coca Old School Sectional field as the Wildkats repeated as the tournament champions after outscoring its three opponents 204-80 in the second annual event. The Kats were crowned champions after beating Western 67-26 in the championship game. The Wildkats, ranked fourth in the state in the coaches all-class poll, knocked off Maconaquah 81-37 in the quarter-finals and Taylor 56-17 in the semi-finals.
“To hold Western to 26 points and single digits in every quarter, and the last quarter just three points, is one phenomenal defensive effort,” said Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley, who recorded his 100th win in the Taylor victory. “It was really a team effort, and I am proud of the way we played, especially defensively.”
In the championship game, Tayler Persons led Kokomo with 21 points (8 of 10 from inside the arc) and 10 rebounds. LaBradford Sebree added 12 points and Kylee Beheler grabbed a career-high nine rebounds. Western was led by the 12 point, seven rebound performance of Ronnie Smith, both team highs.
Persons, a junior, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after having a lights-out final day. In Saturday’s two games (Friday’s scheduled games were played on Saturday due to weather postponements), Persons scored 39 points on 17-26 shooting (16-19 from 2-point range). He also grabbed 14 rebounds and had five steals – all after learning his grandfather had passed away Friday night.
“I came in focused and I don’t really care about winning the MVP,” said Persons, who wrote a tribute to his grandfather, Eric Donelson, on his game shoes. “I just wanted to win the games and I wanted to play good for my grandpa – I really looked up to him and miss him already.”
McCauley said, “Tayler had a great week. It was an emotional week as he played for his grandfather, who was like a second father figure to him.”
Kokomo’s domination of the tournament included shooting 55-percent from the field (63-percent from 2-point range), forcing 75 turnovers and holding its opponents to single-digits in its last nine quarters and in 12 of 14 tournament quarters. The lowest Kokomo scored in a quarter was 12. The Kats outscored Maconaquah 35-7 in the fourth quarter, Taylor 34-7 in the first half and Western 38-11 in the second half. But that might be expected as Kokomo has the best record in Indiana and gives up just 38.7 points per game (sixth best in the state).
“We did a great job of contesting shots and playing aggressive defense,” said McCauley. “You can go down the line and every one of our players played well. This was really a total team effort because even when we put in our bench, they got the job done.”
The Taylor Titans finished in third place after upsetting Northwestern 49-38 in the consolation game. Eastern placed fifth after a 65-58 win over Maconaquah. The game of the tournament was a semi-final matchup in which Western nipped Northwestern 71-70 in triple overtime thanks to a buzzer-beater by Mitchell Shahan.
“I think fatigue was a factor for (Northwestern),” said Taylor head coach Andy Lewman after his squads upset win. “I feel for them – we were tired after playing Kokomo and we didn’t have a triple overtime game. But I thought we did a good job competing and were six for seven from the free throw line – so that is a good step forward. Winning two of three is nice. We did some good things and we are pleased with where our effort fell. Any time you can win two of three in a week, especially with the competition we have seen, is good. I look at the Kokomo game as the measuring stick, so getting Northwestern is big.”
Most Valuable Player: Tayler Persons, Kokomo.
All-Tournament Team: Tayler Persons, Kokomo; LaBradford Sebree, Kokomo; Des Balentine, Western; Ronnie Smith, Western; Nathan Gotshall, Taylor; Trenton Brazel, Northwestern.
Howard County boys basketball records: No. 4 Kokomo 9-0, Western 6-3 (two losses to Kokomo), Northwestern 5-3 (two losses to Western), Eastern 3-5, Taylor 2-7.