By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — ALEXANDRIA — The 2013-14 version of Tipton boys basketball looks a bit different than it has in recent years.
Four of the Blue Devils who took the floor in Tuesday’s Class 2A sectional opener against host Alexandria played roles on last season’s run to a third consecutive semistate appearance. The other six were experiencing the postseason for the first time as the squad began its quest for a fourth straight sectional title.
It took Tipton a half to work out the rubbery legs associated with the nervousness, but with the help of sophomore Mason Degenkolb, the Devils broke free from what was a tight ballgame in the first half and hold off the Tigers 68-60 after leading by as many as 15 in the fourth.
“I hope that’s what we just did, because we have to come back and try it again,” Tipton coach Brad Dickey said of shaking off the opening-round jitters. “We weren’t looking ahead at all. We were concerned about this very good opponent. Now, maybe we’ll lean on our seniors a little bit in practice [today] to talk about how you get better before the next game.”
Degenkolb scored a game-high 35 points, pouring in 24 in the second half, including 12 points in a three-minute stretch of the third where Tipton (12-8) built a 43-33 lead after holding a slim lead at the half, 25-24. The Blue Devils out-scored the Tigers 20-11 in the third to take a 45-35 lead into the final stanza.
“We’ve been working on third quarters a lot,” Degenkolb said. “This year we’ve come out in the third quarter and messed up games, so we’ve worked a lot in practice on how to come out and play in those third quarters. ... We were hitting shots and clicking on all cylinders.”
The lead changed hands eight times in the first half. Freshman Sam Gutierrez buried back-to-back 3-pointers to help Tipton finish the first period on an 8-2 run and take a 14-11 lead into the second quarter after Alex (10-2) held a 9-6 advantage with 3:10 to play in the opening period.
Braden Warren helped the Tigers keep pace in the first half with 13 points. He finished with a team-high 25, but scored nine of those in the final two minutes after Tipton had built a 59-44 lead.
The Blue Devils spent the final six minutes in the bonus as three Tigers fouled out, allowing the visitors to go 16 of 25 from the stripe in the fourth quarter. Degenkolb didn’t attempt a field goal in the final eight minutes, but was 10 of 10 at the line, making him 11 of 11 for the night. He finished 11 for 20 from the field for the game, but was 6 of 8 in that decisive third quarter.
“This was great because we’re a young team with a few sophomores and a freshman,” Degenkolb said. “So getting the jitters out was a big deal, because we plan on coming out and winning on Friday night and Saturday night. We just have to keep playing hard.”
Degenkolb is on a hot streak. He also had a 35-point game against Western in Tipton’s regular-season finale.
Brody Dell added 12 points in the win and Gutierrez finished with eight, while Nate Friend pulled down nine rebounds, which tied Warren for the game high.
Layton Carroll and Blaize Kelly each added 12 points for Alexandria. The Tigers were 24 of 50 from the field in the contest, but struggled to a 2-for-13 clip from beyond the arc.
Tipton faces Taylor (6-13) in Friday’s semifinal, where the Blue Devils will look to earn passage to their sixth straight sectional championship game.