BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — MONTICELLO — Westen’s boys basketball team was a gear slower than Twin Lakes in the first quarter Monday night. And again in the second quarter.
The Panther machine was idling to start the second half and allowed Twin Lakes to blow past for the first eight points after halftime to open up a 38-17 lead.
Finally, after about 20 game minutes, and after trailing by 21 points on a couple occasions, the Panthers found a competitive gear and turned the Class 3A Twin Lakes Sectional final into a thrilling race to the finish.
Western closed the gap to as few as two points in the final three minutes before Twin Lakes regrouped and finished off a 65-57 TL victory.
Asked if he was having flashbacks of Western’s fightback to win the Frankfort Sectional 10 years ago, veteran Twin Lakes coach Kent Adams said “absolutely, absolutely.” His team led 46-30 heading into the fourth quarter Monday night.
“I thought up 16 with whatever was left, we should be able to withstand whatever they’re able to throw at us and they just kept making 3s and scoring and we made some silly turnovers and missed a lot of free throws,” Adams said.
Western got triples from Evan Warden and Austin Weaver to close the third quarter and trim the margin to 16. Twin Lakes got good ball movement and an easy hoop from Cody DeBoy to start the fourth quarter, then the Panthers hit top gear and the fireworks started.
Western reeled off an 11-0 run to trim the lead to 48-41. All 11 points came from Warden as the senior guard elevated Western on sheer will. Twin Lakes found the net again but Western answered with triples from Mo Townsend and Warden to keep within seven points.
Then things got even wilder. With TL clinging to a 55-49 lead, Indian guard Tanner Pritts was whistled for a technical after an Indian foul, and Pritts fouled out as a result. Western’s Zach Shahan hit one free throw and Warden hit two to trim the lead to 55-52 with 2:42 left.
Western was whistled for a double dribble on the ensuing possession (even though on the play in question, the ball bounced on the floor only one time). TL got a jumper from center Dane Holmes, but Warden again responded with a 3-ball to cut the lead to two points at 57-55 with approximately two minutes left. Those turned out to be the final points of his 29-point night and 19-point fourth quarter.
“That showed the resiliency of this team and all year what these guys have done and what they’re made of,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “We were down [21 points], fought back and got it down to [two points], just never-say-die attitude that these guys have. It’s a tribute to the leadership of the seniors, all seven of them. Really proud of the guys that they never gave up hope and fought all the way to the end.”
Next, Holmes hit one of two free throws but TL forward Jordan Crouch got the rebound and Holmes was fouled again. He again hit one of two for a 59-55 lead with 1:30 left. Western couldn’t get Warden free on its next possession and missed a 3-pointer, then had to foul in the minute-plus that remained. Twin Lakes scored eight points in a row on the line to push the margin to 65-55 with :32 left and effectively seal the game.
Adams said what saw his team through to victory was “senior leadership. Cameron Bennington did a nice job of kind of keeping us composed a little bit ... and Dane Holmes coming up with some really key plays. I don’t know if we hit free throws really well but we hit enough to keep [the lead]. Western, what a great effort they put on to not give up and keep coming at us.”
Twin Lakes put itself in position to win with a crisp effort offensively and defensively for the first three quarters that Western didn’t match until the second half.
“There were a lot of calls that I felt could have went either way, and down at the end there, give Twin Lakes credit, they were more aggressive and were able to get a few more loose balls than us,” Miller said. “That was really the story of the night: They were just a tad bit more aggressive than we were and it dug us a hole that we couldn’t dig ourselves out of.”
Gabe Harp had nine points, Weaver eight and Townsend six to go along with Warden’s big night. The Panthers closed the season with a 15-7 record and bid adieu to a senior group that includes Warden, Townsend, Chris Carter, Devon Eaker, James Myers, Zac Simpson and Nic Bewley. Warden closed his career No. 4 on the Panthers’ all-time scoring list with 1,078 points.
“[I] just want to thank the seniors, the seniors did a fantastic job this year,” Miler said. “I appreciate everything they’ve done for us and the program over the years.”
Western was playing its second straight game without leading scorer Des Balentine, who suffered an ACL tear in an opening-round victory over West Lafayette.
Holmes led TL with 15 points, Bennington and Tyler Reddington each had 13, and DeBoy 11 for Twin Lakes (16-7). The Indians advance to the Kankakee Valley Regional.