BY TRIBUNE SPORTS STAFF
The Coca-Cola Old School Sectional tipped off Tuesday with Taylor’s narrow victory over Eastern and Kokomo’s blowout win of Maconaquah at Memorial Gym.
Tonight, the burner gets turned up higher for the semifinals. The Wildkats face Taylor at 6 p.m. in a clash of Tuesday’s winners, and the stragglers finally get in the action as Northwestern and Western write chapter two of this season’s rivalry when they meet at 8.
That second game has the ingredients for a thriller since Western won the Mid-Indiana Conference game by just two points when the rivals met on Nov. 30. In addition, both are coming off a string of narrow wins since they met last month.
Kokomo (7-0) vs. Taylor (1-6)
The Titans are looking to erase a disappointing 0-6 start to the season, a streak which was snapped after Tuesday’s 55-49 win over Eastern.
“We were definitely pleased to get the first one out of the way and get a little sense of accomplishment going there,” Taylor coach Andy Lewman said. “We’re just looking to build on that, going day by day. I felt like we played in some close games and had a couple opportunities in the first six games to crack the win column, and we just didn’t get it all finished. It wasn’t pretty on [Tuesday] night but we survived. But in a tournament setting, that’s what you’re shooting for. We’re excited to be playing [tonight].”
In order to pick up their second win in as many outings, the Titans will have to beat the Class 4A No. 8-ranked Wildkats on their home floor, a program Taylor is 0-14 against all-time.
“It’s one of those deals where we know we’re going in as the underdogs,” Lewman said. “One of our goals is to prove we belong where we’re at. It’s one of those things where I feel like we have some pieces on our ballclub that make us a team that plays good basketball on any given night. Hopefully [tonight] we’re able to be in a situation where we can be competitive and knocking on the door at the end.”
Senior Challen Hodson leads the Titans with an 11.6-points-per-game average. Nick Hoover adds 10 ppg, while Nathan Gotshall had a breakout game of 21 points and 12 rebounds in Tuesday’s win over the Comets.
Kokomo coach Brian McCauley sees this tournament as a great chance for his team to have to prepare for a multitude of styles in a short amount of time.
“We know this is a big week for us,’” he said “Any time you have an opportunity to play in a tournament and simulate a sectional-type week is a great opportunity for your team. We’re trying to utilize the opportunity to see what it takes to win three games in a week and have the right focus, intensity and frame of mind.”
Junior Taylor Persons and senior LaBradford Sebree both average 16.1 ppg to lead the Wildkats. Junior post Erik Bowen added 11.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per outing.
A victory for Kokomo would give McCauley 100 wins for his career. He is in his seventh season as a varsity head coach, all of which have been at Kokomo.
Western (5-2) vs. Northwestern (4-1)
The Mid-Indiana Conference rivals step out of the league in a clash of teams that are winning at the wire.
Western has won four straight games since losing to Lebanon. The Panthers beat Eastern by two points, Rossville by three (in overtime), Hamilton Heights by eight, and Frankfort by four.
Northwestern meanwhile has won three straight since losing to Western, and by even narrower margins. The Purple Tigers beat Taylor by a deuce, topped Mississinewa by three points, and edged Maconaquah by two.
“It should be a really good matchup,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “We were able to build a pretty significant lead on them the second half of the first game, but they never stopped fighting and got it down to one point with 30 seconds to go. Our guys did a great job of showing some resiliency and being able to execute plays that needed to be made at the end of the game to solidify the win for us.”
Northwestern coach Jim Gish said that when the teams met last time, he expected a balanced Western attack, but was surprised that they had even more weapons to turn to than he’d realized.
“They have five solid scorers and a sixth guy that can definitely contribute in the scoring column,” Gish said. “It really makes it tough in the defensive area. How do you want to play them and take away their top two or three threats because they still have other people who can score.”
Point guard Evan Warden leads Western at 14.8 ppg, followed by shooting guard Des Balentine (11.4), center Ronnie Smith (10.4), forward Austin Townsend (10) and wing forward Austin Weaver (7.4).
Gish noted the Panthers shoot a high percentage on offense, and get even more effective when they rebound on the offensive end. Gish said Western is shooting more than 80 percent on second-chance shots.
“We have to definitely limit them to one shot,” he said. “We have to make it a one-and-done because they shoot at such a high percentage. They just have a really astronomically high percentage from the field.”
Northwestern is led by guard/forward Trenton Brazel, who is ripping the nets at 23.8 ppg. Also, wing Graham Ortmann averages 10.2, and post Chase Johnson adds 7.8 and 11.7 rebounds.
“When you talk about Northwestern, you’ve got to start with Trenton Brazel; excellent player in the perimeter and down in the post, he’s an excellent leader for their team,” Miller said. “You got Chase Johnson, 6-foot-7, inside, you’ve got to keep him off the boards. He makes some excellent post moves.
“Outside they’ve got some nice compliments with Graham Ortmann, Logan [Galbraith]. [Jacob Wagner] does a nice job for them along with [Blake Oakley]. They’ve got bench players that come in and give them quality minutes. They’re a well-rounded team that can present problems for you inside and out.”