BY DEAN HOCKNEY
RUSSIAVILLE, Ind. – In 112 seasons of Kokomo boys basketball, they have battled the Western Panthers on 65 occasions since 1948. Heading into the 31st annual opening night tip-off between the two Howard County programs, only six times have the Panthers left the gym with a win. Make it seven. In a Thanksgiving Eve thriller at Richard Rea Gymnasium, the Panthers ruined the debut of Kokomo’s new coach 54-47 in front of a near sellout crowd.
“Hats off to our guys, they just kept plugging away,” said Western coach Bart Miller after the game. “The guys are really happy right now; they are really excited. I told them they are in an elite class at Western – they are one of just seven (to beat Kokomo). I am just so proud of our seniors.”
The Western win snapped a nine-game Kokomo win streak in the series. The Panthers last win was 61-50 in 2006. Ironically, three of the Panthers seven wins have come in the debut game of a new Kokomo coach. Rick Baumgartner lost 62-57 in 2005, Brian McCauley in 2006 and Matt Moore this year. The last Wildkat coach to win his debut game was Mike Wade, a 76-72 win over Western in 2000.
Western got off to a solid start against the younger Kats, leading 12-9 after one stanza despite an early Kokomo lead. Western’s shooting went cold in the second quarter, hitting just 2 of 7 shots to give Kokomo a 24-22 halftime advantage. The close game was surprising in part because Des Balentine, Western’s Indiana All-Star candidate who was returning from ACL surgery, had just one point.
Western, and more importantly Balentine, started to find a groove in the third quarter. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Balentine and Austin Weaver put the Panthers up 32-30. Tied at 36 after three quarters, Gabe Harp drained a 3-pointer followed by a Balentine bucket to put the Panthers up by five. A basket by Kaleb Howard made it seven points, and Western held on for the victory in a game that featured nine ties and nine lead changes.
“What can I say about Des Balentine?” asked Miller. “He got 14 in the second half. And Zach Shanan was just a monster on the inside. And Weaver hit some great shots tonight.”
Balentine led the Panthers with 15 points. Shahan just missed a double-double with nine points and 12 rebounds. Weaver drained 13 points and Harp added 11. Western out-rebounded Kokomo 27-23.
For Kokomo, Jordan Matthews had a game-high 20 points. Ty Sparling had 11 and Jordan Rawlins added eight. The Wildkats struggled from 3-point land, hitting just 3 of 20 attempts. Coach Moore was happy with just eight turnovers.
“We have to know what we are, and we have to know what we aren’t; and we are not a 3-point shooting team,” said Moore. “We said before the game that the team that takes and makes the most free throws will win this game. And they took 23 (made 14) to our eight (made four). And that is just not who we are going to be.”
After the game, Moore talked about what it means to be a coach in Indiana high school basketball.
“This is why I came back – for this atmosphere right here. I have been looking forward to this for a while; it really means something,” said Moore, who played high school basketball at Columbia City. “Before the game, I told the guys to just look around and take it in for a moment. It is a lot bigger than just our team; a lot of people take pride in this.”
Kokomo (0-1) is back in action on Saturday at Westfield (1-0) at 7:30 p.m. Western (1-0) travels to Northwestern (1-0) on Dec. 5 for the final Mid-Indiana Conference matchup between the two rivals.
WESTERN VICTORIES OVER KOKOMO
1980-1981 … 51-49
1985-1986 … 60-57
1990-1991 … 63-52 (IHSAA tourney)
2003-2004 … 77-74 2OT
2005-2006 … 62-57
2006-2007 … 61-50
2014-2015 … 54-47
Series started in 1948-1949
Kokomo leads series 58-7