BY DEAN HOCKNEY
RUSSIAVILLE, Ind. – In the end, no one could knock off the champions. In the final rendition of the Howard County Boys Basketball Tournament, the Western Panthers grabbed its third consecutive – and final – county tourney trophy with a 73-63 upset win over Northwestern. Playing on its home court, the Panthers surged to a second quarter lead courtesy of the hot shooting of Des Balentine and never looked back.
“This was a great team win,” said Western coach Bart Miller. “Balentine and (Austin) Weaver showed great senior leadership and got us in the position to win. I am really proud of our six seniors. They have put in a lot of hard work over the years and it has paid off.”
Western won the tourney for the second consecutive year, but third consecutive time. The tourney was interrupted in 2012 and 2013 for the Coca-Cola Old School Sectional Tourney at Memorial Gym.
Northwestern (9-2) entered the contest with an 8-game win streak and the No. 19 ranking in Class 3A. It also had defeated the Panthers 57-51 on Dec. 5. But Western (6-7), which had played for a month without Balentine due to an injury, welcomed his return and controlled the tempo for much of the final three stanzas.
“When Des was out of the lineup, our guys took the challenge to step up – and now that is helping our depth,” said Miller. “Guys like (Brodee) Lipinski have been phenomenal for us coming off the bench and he scored seven points for us; he gave Des time to rest. And Josh Beeler is a sophomore and guarding (Blake) Oakley and a lot of teams best players. And now that Des is back, I am glad our younger guys are not backing down just because of his return. They are not slacking us, and Des is embracing them – it is a great complement to them and this team.”
Northwestern jumped to an early 14-10 lead after the first quarter. The Tigers maintained that pace, leading 20-15 when the wheels fell off. Lipinski netted a 3-pointer and Austin Weaver tied the game with a pair of free throws. The Tigers regained the lead 22-20, but Balentine scored a bucket on a fast break, hit a 3-pointer and capped a 13-2 Panthers run with a steal and layup for a 27-22 lead. The senior sharp-shooter hit another 3-pointer in the final minute of the half to give the Panthers a 31-23 halftime lead.
“Des looked like the Des of old,” said Miller. “We will see how he feels. But what can you say with his 21 points.”
Balentine said he was not rushing to get back in and accepted the slow approach that Miller and his physical therapists recommended.
I have been doing a lot of therapy at Accelerated – they have done a great job of getting me ready physically and mentally,” said Balentine after helping to cut down the nets. “I feel pretty good.”
Western started the second half with an 8-1 run, and after withstanding a small Tigers run, they put the game out of reach with a 12-2 run to end the third and start the fourth quarter. Balentine finished with a game-high 21 points in his second game back from the knee injury. He missed six games and played limited minutes in his HCT opening round comeback game. Western is 5-2 with Balentine in the lineup and 1-5 without him.
“This is a big win for us, especially after they beat us earlier this year,” said Balentine. “It was huge for the guys to play without me. We have good chemistry and I think we can make a run in the state tourney.”
Weaver finished with 16 points, Gabe Harp 11 and Shahan had nine points and a game-high 10 rebounds. For Northwestern, Austin Miller dropped in 17 points. Blake Oakley finished with eight points after dropping 24 on the Panthers in its Mid-Indiana Conference victory.
After the game, Miller reflected on the final Howard County Tourney. Miller has been around the tourney his whole life – as a child watching when his father coached and was Western’s athletic director, as a Western player and now as head coach. The county athletic director’s decided to end the annual event due to the breakup of the MIC following this school year.
“There is some nostalgia with this win,” said Miller, who has won both county tourney’s in which he has coached. “I hate to see it go and it is a great thing in the community. All of the players know each other, but they compete and are still friends at the end of the weekend. It is just a fun atmosphere, and it is unfortunate that this is the last one. I am proud of our guys and glad they were able to win the last one.”
Eastern tops Taylor in consolation game
Much like Western, the Eastern Comets trailed in the second quarter before going on a 14-0 run to take a 22-15 lead into halftime before cruising to a 55-42 victory. Noah Cope led Eastern (6-7) with 19 points while Braden Evans added 16. Marlin Vazquez scored 12 points to lead Taylor (4-7) while Darian Stone had 11 points.
In the opening round of the tournament, Northwestern defeated Eastern 51-36 and Western took care of Taylor 53-42.