By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
---- — Kokomo’s boys basketball team had Memorial Gym buzzing with excitement once again Saturday night.
Kokomo topped McCutcheon 54-52 in overtime in the Class 4A Kokomo Sectional’s title game, one night after Wildkats upset rival Marion in the semifinal round in front of a charged crowd at the Big House on the corner of Apperson and Superior.
McCutcheon guard Nate Deno drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime in the tense title game, but the Kats scored first in the extra session and kept the lead the rest of the way.
“I didn’t want to go to overtime, but we were going to get it done no matter what happened,” forward Erik Bowen said. “I had trust in my team the whole way and it was an awesome win. Now we’re just moving on, just one [win] at a time.”
Kokomo’s fourth straight sectional title and state-best 74th all-time sends the Kats to the Marion Regional. Kokomo (16-7) will face Homestead (18-7) in the opening semifinal with No. 4 Fort Wayne North (24-1) vs. No. 3 Hamilton Southeastern (22-3) in the second semifinal. HSE took out top-ranked and two-time defending state champ Carmel in the Noblesville Sectional final.
Kokomo is hungry for the regional after falling to Carmel in the 2012 and ‘13 semifinal rounds.
“We have some business to handle up there,” Bowen said.
Kokomo’s all-senior starting lineup willed the Kats to the sectional title in the seniors’ final game at Memorial Gym. Four starters — Bowen, guards Tayler Persons and Mykal Cox and forward Demarius Warren — played all 36 minutes.
Bowen delivered game highs of 18 points and 10 rebounds. Cox had 14 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals. Warren had 12 points and Persons had eight points and six assists. The Kats are 10-1 since Persons returned from a knee injury.
“It was a very big battle,” Cox said. “We’ve all been playing together since second grade. It just feels good to win.”
Warren was clutch in the overtime. With Kokomo holding a 50-48 lead, he drilled a pair of free throws at :22. After McCutcheon closed to within 52-50 at :14, he went back to the line at :07 and hit two more to seal the win.
“They were [pressure packed], but Coach makes us practice our free throws each and every day,” Warren said. “I take my free throws seriously and I’m glad that I was able to help the team.”
Kokomo and McCutcheon went back and forth in regulation, battling through six ties and six lead changes. The Kats were up 17-11 after one quarter, 28-24 at halftime and 35-32 after three quarters.
The Mavs (16-6) took a 39-37 lead at the 4:19 mark of the fourth quarter, but the Kats followed with a 6-0 run fueled by their defense. Cox scored in transition off a steal and Persons hit a 3-pointer for a 43-39 lead following another Mav turnover.
The next two minutes saw both teams miss opportunities — the Mavs missed three shots and the Kats missed two shots and had a turnover. The Mavs’ Deno hit a jumper at :54 to bring his team within 43-41.
Bowen hit both ends of a one-and-bonus opportunity at :18 for a 45-41 lead. The Mavs’ Spencer Caldwell hit a 3-pointer at :05 to make it a one-point game. Bowen made both ends of another one-and-bonus at :04 — and then the Mavs stunned the Kats with Deno’s buzzer-beater. The Mavs passed the ball down court to big man Trevor Lockwood at the top of the key and he kicked it to Deno on the wing.
The Kats had two fouls to give.
“That was my mistake,” Cox said. “We were supposed to foul them but it happened so quick. I’m just happy we won.”
McCutcheon won the tip in the extra session. The Mavs missed a shot, retained possession, but then turned it over. Cox hit a 15-foot floater at 2:46. After another Mav miss, the Kats worked the clock before the Mavs finally fouled at :48. Persons split a pair of free throws for a 50-47 lead.
After Lockwood split a pair of free throws at :31, Warren then was clutch down the stretch for the Kats.
“It was just one of those nip-and-tuck games,” McCutcheon coach Rick Peckinpaugh said. “I thought they turned it over a couple times and gave us a chance and we turned it over and gave them a chance. I would say it was pretty evenly balanced, two teams playing hard, both teams can do a lot of things well.”
Peckinpaugh pointed to the Kats’ 18-11 advantage in free throw attempts as a difference in the game.
“But you have to live with that fact, that the home team gets a few more free throws,” he said.
Sophomore forward Darnell Butler led the Mavs with 15 points. Deno, one of just two seniors on the squad, had 14 points and was 4 of 7 from 3-land.
Butler had a terrific two-minute stretch in the third quarter where he had a transition dunk, an acrobatic layup in heavy traffic and a mid-range jumper.
Kokomo owns 11 straight victories over McCutcheon. The Kats also beat the Mavs in sectional finals in 2009 and ‘13 with the ‘09 game going OT.