BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — MONTICELLO — Western’s boys basketball team gutted out a difficult victory 57-56 over West Lafayette on Wednesday night in the opening round of the Class 3A Twin Lakes Sectional.
West Lafayette’s Caleb Smith wasn’t able to convert an instant shot off an inbounds play with 0:00.3 left, and the Panthers claimed a one-point victory.
Above and beyond the difficulty of dealing with a traditional rival in a sectional atmosphere, the Panthers had to muster the strength to win without leading scorer Des Balentine, who went down with a knee injury with 7:00 left in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 42-all.
“We’re a family here with the Western basketball program and we hate to see anybody get hurt, but when a guy has done as much for the program as Des has, it’s difficult for the guys,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “The emotion in the lockerroom, don’t get me wrong, guys were happy and proud that we won, but not a single one of them was cheering in there. They’re all concerned about their teammate.”
Western fell behind 48-44 quickly after the injury to Balentine as West Lafayette’s Trev Parker and Tyler Nycz hit back-to-back 3-pointers. Western’s Mo Townsend responded with a triple of his own after an offensive rebound by Evan Warden, but Nycz hit another 3-pointer to push the lead back out to four at 51-47.
Warden scored on a drive with 3:42 left to trim the lead to two points. Then, shortly after Balentine returned to the bench on crutches and in obvious pain, Western made a defensive adjustment to trap the Red Devil ballhandlers high in the halfcourt and Warden responded with a steal as a WL player tried to pass out of the trap. Twelve seconds later he hit a driving layup to tie the game at 51-all with 3:00 to play.
“That was just ‘hey, we’ve got to try something, we’re down,’” Miller said of switching to a trapping defense, which yielded another steal by Austin Weaver on WL’s next possession. “Evan made a play. We came out and kind of disguised it a little bit and said once it comes in, we’re gonna go trap and Evan made the steal and big bucket to come down and tie it. I think that lifted everybody’s spirits, especially after Des went down.”
Western took a 53-51 lead when Warden put back his own miss with 1:50 left after a previous offensive rebound from Gabe Harp. After a West Lafayette missed 3-pointer, Western started to run the weave and run clock. Harp hit two free throws with 44 seconds left, but Nycz responded with his fifth triple of the game to trim the lead to 55-54.
Warden hit two freebies with 20 seconds left, West Lafayette’s Nai Carlisle hit a driving hoop with seven seconds left and Western again had a one-point lead at 57-56. Harp missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw opportunity with 6.5 seconds, but Carlisle did the same moments later. The rebound was ruled dual possession with .3 left to set up the final desperate chance for West Lafayette.
“Hat’s off to West Lafayette, they just played a whale of a ball game,” Miller said. “We got out to a big lead in the first quarter [18-7] and they came back and got the lead on us. I think when Des went out it was tied. We got down four or five points right off the bat but our guys came back and just fought and didn’t give up, down to the last play, the last buzzer, three tenths of a second we weren’t going to give up an open shot on the tip-in.”
Balentine finished with 20 points, Warden scored 18, Zach Shahan had eight and Townsend five.
“Evan Warden, what can you say?” Miller said of Warden’s effort late. “It wasn’t just him, it was Gabe Harp coming in, Mo Townsend, Zach Shahan on the boards, Austin Weaver, Devon Eaker, everybody that got on the floor, and even the guys that were on the bench they really rose up and supported one another.”
Nycz led WL with 15 points and Parker had 14.
FINAL Western 57 W. Lafayette 56 Next: Western vs. Northwestern at 7:45 p.m. Friday.