BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — RUSSIAVILLE — Even though it’s early, Hamilton Heights’ boys basketball team put itself in great position to challenge for a repeat Mid-Indiana Conference title on Friday with a win at Western that hampered the home team’s bid for the same.
The Huskies moved to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the MIC by holding off a late Western run and emerging from Richard R. Rea Gymnasium with a 55-44 victory. Western fell to 2-1 in the MIC and 3-2 overall. Peru (1-0) is the only other squad without a blemish in the conference.
Heights led 36-21 with 2:31 left in the third quarter before Western charged back. The Panthers got a triple from Austin Weaver, a bucket and 1 of 2 free throws from Des Balentine, and a great buzzer-beating layup from Gabe Harp off a Balentine outlet to close the third down just seven points at 36-29.
Western closed the gap to a bucket at 42-40 with 2:27 left, but Heights got two free throws from Bo O’Laughlin to start a 10-0 run. After those freebies, Heights followed with two key defensive stops, and then two straight Western turnovers to take control again.
“At that point, our execution wasn’t as sharp as it was earlier,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “We came out there in the third quarter and I thought executed well. Give Heights credit, they’re a good team, they’re a well-coached team. They might have turned up the defense another notch on us and we ended up not executing quite as well toward the end. And they knocked down their free throws there in the fourth quarter and we couldn’t catch up.”
The defensive stand started with two missed 3-pointers by Western with the Huskies up 44-40.
“That was huge, a huge stop,” Heights coach Chad Ballenger said of the second stop. “What it did was it got us to come back down here and get us in our spread game. We got to spread the floor and our guards got to take over, and we got ourselves to the free-throw line.”
Heights hit 11 of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter. Nine of those makes came after Western trimmed the lead to a bucket.
“Last week, we had a 16-point lead at Cass in the third, we were up 10 in the fourth against them, but we were 1 of 7 from the line,” Ballenger said of that overtime win. “Maybe we learned something from that. Any time you can win on the road in our conference is big.”
Heights has only one road game left in the league (at Eastern), and four home dates.
Balentine led all scorers with 20 points. Warden and Weaver added nine apiece for the Panthers. A key was that while Warden and Balentine can drive and create, Heights was able to contest shots by the other Panthers and limit their damage. Three other Panthers scored two points each.
“That’s big, that’s big,” Ballenger said. “That’s what we worked on all week was any dribble drives, matching up on [Mo] Townsend, matching up on Weaver, and not letting those off guys beat us. Harp hit some shots the last few weeks. We didn’t let those guys step up.”
Western hit 3 of 17 shots from 3-point land. Heights wasn’t better, connecting on 3 of 18, but Heights had more room for error thanks to a plus-13 difference in rebounding.
“In the first half, our execution was very poor,” Miller said. “We were standing a lot on offense. We were watching Evan and Des try to create things ad we just weren’t playing Western basketball. We came out in the second half and I felt we executed for about 13 1/2 of those 16 minutes. When it came down to it, we didn’t quite execute, Hamilton Heights did and the result was a loss.”
Heights’ two inside starters, O’Laughlin and Garrett Paull, each had 14 points. Paull had 15 rebounds.