By JOSH SIGLER and PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — The 2014 IHSAA boys basketball state tournament marks the 17th anniversary of the implementation of class basketball, but for former Kokomo players like Brian McCauley and Jason Snyder, the memories of what the single-class tournament was like are still fresh on their minds.
Now the Wildkats’ boys basketball coach and athletic director, respectively, McCauley and Snyder remember standing-room-only crowds being the norm throughout the tournament, which started at Kokomo’s Memorial Gym for sectional play and moved on to Marion’s Bill Green Athletic Arena for the regional.
Tonight, the North Central Conference-rival Giants pay the Kats a visit in a Class 4A sectional semifinal. The first matchup between the teams this season on Dec. 20 at Memorial Gym featured a sizable crowd the likes of which Snyder hadn’t seen in a long time.
With tournament survival on the line, as well as fan contingents from McCutcheon and Harrison making the trek over from the Lafayette area, a similar, if not larger, crowd is expected to take the action in.
“It brings you back to former years,” McCauley said. “It’s exciting. It’s what Indiana high school basketball is all about.”
The Giants (18-4) have enjoyed an infusion of excitement in and around their program this year with the addition of former great James Blackmon taking over head coaching duties.
His son, guard James Jr., an Indiana University recruit, McDonald’s All-American candidate and Mr. Basketball candidate, made the move from Fort Wayne Bishop Luers with his father, and has torched the nets to the tune of a 33.4 points-per-game scoring average this season.
“He’s a complete basketball player,” McCauley said of Blackmon Jr. “He can score off the dribble. He can score off the catch. He can score in multiple ways. He’s an active defender with great size and athleticism.”
Blackmon Jr. scored 37 points against Kokomo in that Dec. 20 matchup, leading Marion to a 75-51 victory over the Kats, a game where the hosts committed 24 turnovers.
“We definitely struggled in that game, and all credit goes to Marion,” McCauley said. “They really exposed us in that game and played very well. We’ve tried to improve, and I think we have. Our guys have done a great job of making progress and growth throughout the season. I’ve liked their focused heading in on what we can do to be at our best this week.”
Kokomo (14-7) struggled to a 2-5 mark in its first seven games, but has rebounded nicely since, entering the postseason having won 12 of 14.
Senior guard Tayler Persons returned for the final nine games of the regular season after missing the first 12 as he recovered from a torn ACL. The Northern Kentucky recruit has averaged 18.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists since his return, helping Kokomo win eight of nine entering the postseason.
Persons did not play in the first clash with Marion, but saw the game from the bench as a spectator. He’s eager to make a difference in the rematch.
“I’m just looking forward to bringing my leadership on the floor,” he said. “I felt like the first time I watched us play Marion, we didn’t have any leadership out there, and that’s why we turned the ball over a lot. We didn’t have anyone out there to settle them down. That’s my biggest thing to give my teammates [tonight].”
Senior post Erik Bowen adds 14.6 points and 8.1 boards for the Kats. Senior point guard Mykal Cox adds 11.2 points and 5.3 assists, while senior wing Demarius Warren chips in with 11 ppg.
TWIN LAKES SECTIONAL
NORTHWESTERN (10-10) vs. WESTERN (14-6)
The Howard County rivals meet for a third time this season with the most at stake in the semifinal of the Class 3A sectional. Western won a 57-48 decision on Dec. 6 and claimed a 67-54 victory on Jan. 17 in the Howard County Tournament.
This time the Panthers may be without guard Des Balentine after he suffered a dislocated kneecap in the Panthers 57-56 win over West Lafayette in Wednesday’s sectional opening round. He has an MRI scheduled for today and isn’t expected to play.
Western is looking for its 11th straight win over Northwestern.
“It’s going to be difficult dealing with Northwestern for a third time,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “They are so deep, they go 10, 11, 12 players deep. You’ve got to prepare for each one of those players. Each and every one of those players is capable of scoring.
“Defensively they are just relentless. They pressure the ball, pressure you for all 32 minutes and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to take care of the ball and defend.”
Northwestern was able to rebound from a sluggish start and knock off Peru 66-62 in its sectional opener Wednesday, trailing by 11 early in the third quarter before erupting for 52 second-half points.
“I thought the resilience we showed was very impressive, even from a coach’s standpoint because there were multiple times where … we could’ve folded in the first half and the start of the second half,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said. “We battled back, and it took a lot of will from the kids.”
The absence of Balentine doesn’t change the Tigers’ gameplan much. If anything, it gives the squad more to worry about in Gish’s eyes.
“It’s important for us to understand that someone for them is going to assume a bigger role than what they’ve had,” he said. “It’s important that we recognize that early, because if we don’t, someone is going to step up and fill in those areas [where] Des was for their team. If we don’t recognize that early, it’ll be too late, because they have very good other role players that will step in.”
• Benton Central (11-10) faces host Twin Lakes (14-7) in today’s first semifinal.
TAYLOR (6-13) VS. TIPTON (12-8)
Tipton fought off a Taylor rally to win the regular-season contest 61-58 on Feb. 8. Including that game, Tipton has won seven games decided by six or fewer points, while losing just three games that were within that margin or tied at the end of regulation.
“They do a great job of managing the clock in the fourth quarter,” Taylor coach Andy Lewman said. “[The Blue Devils] will get up and down the floor in the third quarter, but if they’ve got the lead in the fourth quarter they do a great job of really shortening the game. The clock’s going to go fast, they’re going to work the ball around and take 30, 40 seconds, even a minute off the clock in a possession. You can’t let that happen.”
Mason Degenkolb leads the Blue Devil offense. The sophomore guard has scored 35 points in back-to-back games, including Tipton’s 68-60 win over Alexandria in the sectional on Tuesday.
“I feel like we’ve taken some strides forward defensively during the month of February,” Lewman said. “Stopping Mason Degenkolb is going to be a key part of things. You want to limit the opportunities he’s getting.”
Lewman said the Titans gave up too many uncontested looks and second-chance points in the first game, items he wants to correct today. On the Tipton end, the Devils don’t want to let Taylor force them out of their plan, as happened in the first meeting.
“They’re aggressive to the hole,” Tipton coach Brad Dickey said of the Titans. “They’ve got three or four guys that can score the ball and in our previous game they pressed and pressured us very effectively toward the end of the game. When we should have been able to hold the ball and run some plays, they didn’t allow it.”
Stopping the Titans from getting to the hoop is a point of emphasis.
“[Point guard Calvin] Wheeler is really good off the dribble, and [forward Latrell] Mitchell is also good off the dribble, around the post area, and their perimeter guys are much improved,” Dickey said. “They’re doing a better job of making shots and executing some good teamwork plays.”
EASTERN (4-17) VS. MADISON-GRANT (9-12)
The Comets and Argylls didn’t meet in the regular season. In M-G, Eastern must deal with a team that has size on its side.
“They play a 1-2-2 zone and they’re aggressive in it,” Eastern coach Mike Springer said. “They have a 6-9 center [Tanner Wise] that can cover the middle pretty well for them, so we’re going to have to ... not let him push us around inside. He’s the kind of player that he takes up a lot of space and [has] long arms. It presents some problems for us because we’re not real tall, but one thing we’re going to have an advantage on is quickness on the perimeter and inside as well.
“They move the ball well offensively, have guys that can shoot the ball from the perimeter when they need to, as well as throw it into their big post man. It’s going to be a tough ball game but if we can come out and get after them defensively and force them into some turnovers and get our inside-out game going, I think we can come out of there with a win.”
Eastern thrashed Sheridan by 19 points on Wednesday in the Comets’ sectional opener. The Comets scored in a variety of ways, a trend Springer hopes continues tonight.
“Any time we get that balance going that’s an advantage for us,” he said. “Our defensive intensity was really a plus for us. We forced Sheridan to do some things that they didn’t really want to do. That’s something that we’ve got to be ready to do [tonight] for us to be effective.”
CASS (18-2) vs. MANCHESTER (16-5)
Lewis Cass’ boys basketball team survived its sectional opener Tuesday against Wabash at the Class 2A sectional. The No. 7-ranked Kings face another tough test tonight against the tournament host Squires.
“It’s two contrasting styles,” Cass coach Jon Kitchel said. “They play a switching man-to-man defense that looks like a zone. They’re real deliberate on offense. They’ve got three shooters and they’re a team that plays off emotion. They’ll have a lot of emotion with it being a home game for them.”
SECTIONAL SEMIFINALS Local squads in sectional action tonight Class 4A Kokomo Sectional 6 p.m. -- Kokomo vs. Marion Class 3A Twin Lakes Sectional 7:45 p.m. -- Northwestern vs. Western Class 2A Alexandria Sectional 6 p.m. -- Taylor vs. Tipton 7:45 p.m. -- Eastern vs. Madison-Grant Class 2A Manchester Sectional 7:45 p.m. -- Cass vs. Manchester Class 2A Fountain Central Sectional 7:45 p.m. -- Southmont vs. Clinton Central Class A Tri-Central Sectional 6 p.m. -- Faith Christian vs. Carroll