BY MIKE BLATT
The undefeated Kokomo boys basketball team found itself in unfamiliar territory Saturday night at Memorial Gym.
After winning their last six games by an average margin of over 32 points per game, the Class 4A No. 7-ranked Wildkats found themselves trailing upset-minded McCutcheon by 13 points with 5:25 to play in the third quarter.
But junior guard Tayler Persons scored 17 of his game-high 19 points over the next seven minutes to get Kokomo back in the game, and the Kats escaped with a 51-50 win to lift their record to 11-0. Kokomo’s 11-game win streak is its longest since coach Brian McCauley was a player for the Wildkats back in 1996.
The contest came down to the wire. Ahead 43-39 with under seven minutes remaining, the Mavericks suffered a blow when 6-foot-7 junior center Trevor Lockwood came up hobbling and had to leave the game for over four minutes. Lockwood had made life miserable for Kokomo with 16 points, 13 rebounds, and six blocked shots on the night.
The Kats took advantage. Persons hit a triple to narrow the gap to 43-42 at the 6:22 mark, and Kokomo tied the game at 44-44 on Hakim Burnett’s jumper after Mav Matt Muncy had split a pair of free throws. Persons blocked Mark Neill’s shot, and then Erik Bowen gave Kokomo its first lead since the opening stanza with a putback basket off Burnett’s miss that made it 46-44.
Mykal Cox hit one of two freebies on the Kats’ next possession, but McCutcheon’s Tre’Shon Heard nailed a triple to tie and another to give the Mavericks a 50-47 lead with 2:09 to play. Cox followed Bowen’s miss to cut it to 50-49 and McCutcheon turned it over. Then Kokomo senior LaBradford Sebree nailed a jumper to put Kokomo ahead for good at 51-50 with 1:14 to play.
Longwood gave the Mavs a great chance with an offensive rebound and pass to Nathaniel Acree who was fouled, but Acree missed both foul shots and Persons grabbed the rebound. Burnett was fouled with 16 seconds left but missed the front end of the bonus free throw and McCutcheon had one last chance. After a timeout at 0:05.4, Acree was stripped of the ball by Persons on a baseline drive and Bowen secured the loose ball for the win.
McCauley had nothing but praise for the visiting Mavericks, who suffered a heartbreaking two-point loss to Noblesville on Friday.
“I want to give McCutcheon a lot of credit,” he said. “They’re an outstanding team; they’re a championship-level team. ...They’re really a tough team and we had to play our best to come out on top.
“But I credit our guys. Our effort was outstanding as well, and I’m just so proud of the toughness the guys showed. We hit some big buckets, no doubt about it. Tayler hit some big threes to claw us back in there. LaBradford hit some big baskets to keep us within reach. We did a good job of hanging in there and somehow coming out on top.”
Kokomo had to overcome a disastrous second period. Lockwood’s basket at the first quarter buzzer put the Mavs up 17-16 and began a 19-5 run that lasted into the third quarter when the lead reached 13 points. The Kats hit just 2 of 15 shots in the second quarter as McCutcheon built a 26-20 halftime lead behind Lockwood’s 10-point effort.
Although disappointed with the loss, McCutcheon coach Rick Peckinpaugh, was understandably proud of his team’s play.
“I thought our kids played extremely well,” he said. “We came in and battled a team that was undefeated on their home court and took them right down to the wire.
“We had a chance to win with the last possession down one [point], but their quick hands got the ball and knocked it away. They probably won the game with a few turnovers they caused; otherwise, we probably played as well as we could play. That’s a sign for things to come for this team.”
Indeed, the Mavs won most of the statistical battles, outshooting the Kats 48 percent to 40 percent from the floor, outrebounding them 31-25, and blocking seven shots. But Kokomo forced 14 turnovers and committed only five and tallied 12 assists on their 21 baskets. Both teams shot poorly from the charity stripe, with McCutcheon hitting just 2 of 6 and Kokomo only 3 of 8.
Lockwood drew praise from both coaches.
“He’s the best post player we’ve played to this point,” said McCauley. “No disrespect to anyone else, but he’s very, very, very good. Every time they needed a big rebound, he got it.”
Peckinpaugh added, “He had 21 [Friday] night and came back [with 16 Saturday]. He’s just getting better and better every week. He goes to the boards hard, rebounds both ends; he’s getting more physical and tougher.”
In addition to Person’s 19 points, Sebree added 15 for Kokomo. Persons and Bowen shared team rebounding honors with eight. The Mavs were paced by Lockwood’s double-double, and Heard and Nate Deno chipped in 12 apiece.