By Josh Sigler and Pedro Velazco
— When heading down the last few pit stops in the regular season, each passing weekend becomes increasingly crucial for any team’s success, especially a team trying to chase down a conference or sectional title.
Enter Kokomo’s Class 4A No. 10-ranked boys basketball team.
Fresh off a pair of wins last weekend, the North Central Conference leaders are set to put their unblemished league record on the line tonight when the Kats welcome Huntginton North to Memorial Gym, a place where Kokomo has won 23 straight games.
As an encore, the Kats welcome the Class 3A No. 7 Lebanon Tigers to town Saturday night.
“It’s a sectional-type weekend,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said. “If you’re going to win a sectional, you’ve got to beat two really good teams back to back on a Friday and Saturday. It’s great preparation for our sectional. You either rise to the challenge and succeed or you don’t. This team is going to have to rise up and match the challenge of playing two really good blue-collar teams.”
Huntington North (9-8, 2-2 NCC) is in its first year under Rob Irwin, who previously coached at Whitko.
The Vikings have shown their ability to knock down shots from afar. Their three leading scorers, Noah Reed (15.6 ppg), Kalvin Miller (12.1) and Trenton Kern (9.3) all shot 40 percent or better from beyond the arc.
“They have a lot of confidence,” McCauley said of Huntginton. “They have a lot of toughness on defense. They take charges. They block out. They have great help-side defense. Then, you couple that with the fact that they shoot 42 percent as a team from 3-point range and 72 percent from the foul line, and that’s why they’ve been able to have a lot of success this season. They’ve been in every game they’ve played. Our team defense is going to have to be solid.”
The Kats (14-2, 4-0) delivered Huntington a 99-70 thrashing last season at North Arena, Kokomo’s highest scoring game since a 100-74 win over a Kyle Macy-led Peru team during the 1973-74 season.
Junior Tayler Persons leds Kokomo in scoring at a 17.4 ppg clip. Senior LaBradford Sebree adds 15.3 ppg, while junior Erik Bowen chips in with 9.9 ppg and a team-best 6.4 rebounds per game.
Lebanon (12-2) has won five straight after a 65-49 loss to Fishers on Jan. 3. Kokomo beat Fishers 75-52 on Dec. 1.
Taylor (5-11, 1-4 MIC) at Western (9-6, 3-2 MIC)
The two county and conference rivals will renew their rivalry tonight in Russiaville. Western has won four straight meetings in the series, including 54-45 and 59-42 wins last season.
The Titans boast six players who score five or more points per game, led by senior Challen Hodson at 10.6 ppg. Classmate Nathan Gotshall adds 7.4 ppg and a team-best 6.5 rpg to the mix, while fellow senior Nick Hoover contributes 7.7 ppg.
“Taylor is another excellent-coached team here in the MIC,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “They don’t have a lot of size, but they have a lot of quickness and good shooters. They thing that impresses me about Taylor is how hard they play every possession. It doesn’t matter what the score is. It’s like it’s 0-0 the entire game.”
Western displays a similar balance, led by junior guard Evan Warden’s 13.8 ppg. Backcourt mate Des Balentine adds 12.4 ppg, followed by seniors in center Ronnie Smith (10.5) and forward Austin Townsend (9.2). Smith pulls down 7.2 rebounds per outing.
“They’re going to bring a balanced attack to things with Balentine and Warden’s outstanding guard play,” Taylor coach Andy Lewman said. “In the times we’ve watched them, Smith and Austin Townsend have played well. They attack the glass. They bring a full team effort that that’s something we have to limit.”
• Both teams return to action Saturday against potential sectional opponents. Western visits Twin Lakes (8-7) while 2A No. 2 Tipton (16-1) visits Center Court.
No. 2 Tipton (16-1) at Northwestern (8-5)
The Blue Devils ride a nine-game winning streak into tonight’s date at Northwestern. Included in the run is an overtime victory over Kokomo.
The Devils are led by do-it-all guard/forward Mike Crawford, the Tribune area’s leading scorer at 27.8 ppg. Guard Blake Hoover adds 10.6 ppg, freshman guard Mason Degenkolb scores 7.7 ppg and inside player Nate Friend adds 6.8 ppg.
“They just have a lot of balance in their lineup,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said. “Obviously, Crawford’s a very good basketball player, but he does such a nice job of making everybody better around him, and the guys around him are very good basketball players as well. It raises the level of everyone because they’re so unselfish.
“They have the ability to score in several different ways. Crawford has the outside-inside ability. The guards are very good shooters and they have the ability to take you off the bounce.”
Another inside-outside threat leads Northwestern as Trenton Brazel averages 21.2 ppg. Chase Johnson adds 10.3 ppg and an area-best 9.8 rpg.
Crawford leads Tipton in rebounding at 9.1 rpg.
“With as big as [the Devils] are, they do a really nice job of getting on the offensive glass,” Gish said. “We have to find a way to make sure that that rebounding margin stays as close as we can keep it. It’s hard enough to stop them in the first go around, if they get multiple shots in the same possession it makes life really difficult.”
• The Purple Tigers visit Southwood on Saturday. The Knights are 8-4 heading into tonight’s game with Rochester.
“They’ve got two guards that can shoot the basketball and they have a really nice 6-4/6-5 interior [Shane Smith] player that has a real nice inside game. They make you defend them from outside and inside, and bring a lot of offense to the game,” Gish said. “Defensively, they’re really going to get out after you, extend their defense, make you take care of the basketball.”
Tipton visits Taylor on Saturday.
Around the Area
Cass (7-7, 1-3 MIC) visits Peru (7-6, 4-0 MIC) as the Bengal Tigers look to remain alone atop the league standings, while Hamilton Heights (8-6, 3-1) visits Maconaquah (9-5, 4-1) with both teams fighting to stay one game back in the loss column.
Elwood (7-8) visits Eastern (3-11) in a matchup of potential sectional opponents. Elwood took last year’s contest 82-62.
Clinton Central (1-14, 1-3) visits Tri-Central (4-11, 1-2) in a Hoosier Heartland Conference contest. TC won the squads’ first matchup of the year, 79-32, on Dec. 28.
And, Carroll (8-7) visits Delphi (10-4) for the teams’ annual Carroll County grudge match.