BY DEAN HOCKNEY
INDIANAPOLIS – The Kokomo Wildkats limped into downtown Indianapolis on Feb. 4 on the heels of losing three consecutive games before squeaking by in a come-from-behind victory at Class 2A Lewis Cass. So it was no wonder few gave them a chance against Class 4A No. 7 Arsenal Tech. And after a 12-0 Tech run in the first half – with Mr. Basketball candidate C.J. Walker on the bench with a “tweaked knee” – it looked like the Titans would win the first meeting between the two school since 1986. But as the old saying goes, there is a reason you play the game.
After several scoldings by Kokomo head coach Matt Moore, Kokomo came to life and rattled off a 17-0 run of its own, took command of the game by 20 points in the third quarter, then held on for dear life for a stunning 83-79 victory at Reuben Behlmer Gymnasium.
“Anytime you can win on the road and in the way we did; wow,” exclaimed a joyous Moore after the game. “Jeron (Gray) really set the tempo for us tonight, and he is sick. Jordan (Matthews) was solid and did a great job. And Ty Sparling; you have to love the kid. He has not played well on a consistent level, but he was huge tonight. As much as the other guys, we win this game because Ty came out and it was ‘T-Money’ tonight. I am happy for them because I don’t think, except for the coaching staff and a few guys on the bus, many people thought we had a legitimate shot to get this one.”
The Wildkats started the game in solid fashion, leading 9-7 midway through the first quarter. It was 17-16 Kokomo after one quarter, and 20-16 on a Sparling triple. But that is when Tech rattled off 12 consecutive points to seemingly take control 28-20. But a 9-0 Kokomo run showed the Kats were not out of the game – and neither apparently was Walker, who somehow recovered from the knee injury to enter the game in the second stanza. Kokomo led 37-29 at the half.
In the third quarter Kokomo continued to play Tech’s rim-to-rim, up-tempo style of basketball. After ending the half on a 17-1 run, it was a 20-1 jaunt before Tech scored – and before the Tech crowd knew it, Kokomo was on a 49-21 run and led by 20 (69-49) midway through the final quarter.
“I thought our guys did a great job of taking what they gave us,” said Moore. “We then had to think about when not to shoot and slow it down – I think I said at one point, ‘First to 80 wins,’ and we did.”
Kokomo was led by Matthews, who had an unconventional double-double of 23 points and 10 fouls drawn – he hit 13 free throws, including several down the stretch to help seal the win. Birthday boy Sparling dropped in 19 points on 7 for 9 accuracy. Gray ran the point and tallied 16 points, four assists and two steals. Keenen Wheeler scored 11 points and Marcelle Kenner nabbed nine boards as the Kats outrebounded the high-flying Titans 39-29.
Kokomo (9-8) is now preparing for the inaugural North Central Conference tournament, which begins Feb. 13 at Tech and McCutcheon. Kokomo battles Anderson (3-14) in the opening game at 1 p.m. at Tech. If they win, the Kats will play Tech (14-4) that evening at 7 p.m. If they lose, Kokomo plays in the ninth-place game at Memorial Gym at 11 a.m. on Feb. 20.