RUSSIAVILLE — Kokomo and Western kicked off the new boys basketball season in a packed Richard R. Rea Gymnasium with a late-season sense of urgency. The game finished with an equally urgent reaction from the home crowd as the Western students stormed the floor at the buzzer to celebrate Western's tense 53-47 victory.

"It's early in the season and [we're] trying to figure things out but I thought collectively we had really, really good poise and I thought the kids had the right approach that when something bad happened, we were trying to make the next right play," Western coach Mike Lewis said. "I thought that was really, really important because there were a few swings of momentum and we found a way to make the big play at the right time."

The lead changed hands six times. Western took the lead for good with a seven-point flurry before the midway point of the fourth quarter. That run featured a driving bucket by Cooper Jarvis, a 3-pointer by Kyle Sanders and a bucket against the press by Conner Linn to go up 43-37 with 4:52 to go.

Kokomo trimmed the lead to one point at 46-45 on a pair of free throws by Donta Chamberlain with 1:24 left, but Linn scored a difficult leaning basket when looking for contact with 1:06 left to push the lead to 3 points. Kokomo got only two more free throws the rest of the game and Sanders made 5 of 6 freebies in the final 20 seconds to secure Western's first victory over Kokomo since 2014.

"The more opportunities that we get to put ourselves in position to find a way to win, the better these guys will become at closing so I was just proud that we were able to do the job," Lewis said.

Both squads played sticky defense and made it hard to get points out of the flow of the offense. Western had a little more success with that and connected on 7 of 18 3-pointers to help offset Kokomo's 36-26 advantage on the boards. Western hit 17 of 40 shots overall and held Kokomo to just 15 of 44.

"We've got to get stronger around the basket," Kokomo coach Bob Wonnell said. "I thought we got a lot of good shots, we just missed a lot of easy shots. We missed a lot of free throws [hitting 14 of 26]. We've got to move the ball more.

"Give Western credit they played a really good game. They shot the ball well, their zone was good all night, they packed in and made things tough for us to get into the lane, but we've just got to keep working, keep getting better, not allow us to get discouraged."

Western kept the energy high with depth. Nine of the 10 Panthers to hit the floor got at least a rebound or point, led by Sanders' 17 points. Jarvis and Blake Constable scored nine each and Linn had seven, all in the fourth quarter.

"I thought the best thing about the win is everyone on our team contributed," Lewis said. "We played a lot of guys and everyone executed their roles. Everyone brought something positive and that's what I'm most proud of."

Kokomo got a huge night from Chamberlain, who had team-highs of 12 points and 22 rebounds. Steven Edwards scored 10 points and Shemar Robinson seven. Kokomo played without standout guard Jeremy Baker, who is being held out as he recovers from an ankle injury.

Kokomo had trouble imposing its will offensively.

"We're not a great-shooting team and anybody gets a copy of this tape, they're going to have that lane as crowded as possible and we're going to have to figure out a way," Wonnell said. "We've got to get faster. I thought we settled for a halfcourt game the whole night. Whether it was off a make or a miss we never really pushed the tempo very much and that hurt us. This was definitely [Western's] style of game in their gym and they deserved to win, no doubt."

Chamberlain's rebound total is the top effort by a Wildkat since at least 1986.

"That's been Deonta since the start of the offseason," Wonnell said. "He's our rock, he's our leader, just plays so hard, is a fantastic teammate, an unselfish teammate. You get 22 rebounds out there playing as hard as you can and I look at the stat sheet and the thing that disappoints me is we [only] got him eight shots. We've got to play to our strengths a little better, get more people involved."

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Pedro Velazco has been a sportswriter at the Kokomo Tribune since 1999.