BY JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — GREENTOWN — Western’s boys basketball team has relied heavily on a zone defense early in the season to help combat the post and rebounding challenges that come with a guard-laden roster.
Friday night, the Panthers showed they’re pretty strong in a man-to-man defensive setting, as well.
Western overwhelmed Eastern from the outset, combining hounding man-to-man pressure with sound shooting in a 79-40 rout of the Comets in a Mid-Indiana Conference clash between county rivals.
The Panthers (3-1, 2-0 MIC) grabbed six steals in the first quarter, and turned almost all of Eastern’s eight turnovers into points, hitting at nearly a 60-percent clip from the field (10 for 17) in the first eight minutes on their way to a 24-4 advantage by the first stop.
When the Comets were able to get shots off, they came on contested looks, hitting on just 2 of 9 from the floor in the same span.
“We wanted to come out get off to a fast start [Friday] night, and we did that,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “The whole key was on the defensive end. We were able to limit their shots with good man-to-man pressure. It was the first time this season where we made man-to-man our primary defense for the whole game. I thought the guys executed well, especially against Eastern and their five-out cuts. We did a nice job of being in position and taking away their cuts with the help side [defense]. It was a good team victory. Defense keyed it, and a good night shooting always helps, too.”
Austin Weaver led the offensive charge for Western, firing in a career-high 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. He scored 12 points in the first quarter, and buried a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter to help the Panthers build a 45-21 lead by halftime.
Des Balentine was just as deadly in the first half, scoring all of his 13 points in the first 16 minutes. He and Evan Wardan each grabbed a pair of steals in the first quarter, with Balentine finishing four of Western’s six steals with breakaway layups.
“They were probably on fire when they got off the bus,” Eastern coach Mike Springer said of Western. “They came in with a lot of confidence after a couple good ballgames last weekend. We knew they were going to be confident. They shoot the ball so well. It’s hard to keep Balentine and Warden in front of you. They got big baskets from everyone [Friday] night, and when they shoot the ball that well, it’s hard to guard everybody.”
Warden finished with 15 points and four steals, scoring 12 in the second half. Gabe Harp added 12 points off the bench on 5-of-6 shooting. Ten of 11 Panthers who saw the floor cracked the scoring column on what was a balanced effort offensively.
“The guys play for each other, and that’s what’s so great about this group,” Miller said. “They want each other to succeed and want to make each other better. It’s not about the ‘me,’ it’s about the team. And that’s each and every one of them. A guy could be selfish in a game like this, but the guys really want to make the team better and each other better, and I think that’s what we did [Friday] night.”
Noah Cope led Eastern (0-3, 0-1) with 17 points, while Jacob Kinder added six points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Western keyed on Comets leading scorer Braden Gibson, holding the squad’s lone senior veteran to five points on 1-of-10 shooting.
“I think we’re going to be a work in progress all year,” Springer said. “Our goal is to get better every time we step out on the floor, and we’re doing that, so we have to keep working and stay positive. The kids kept working hard and kept doing the things I’ve been asking them to do. Was I pleased with the outcome? No. But, I felt like my kids gave me good effort.”