By Josh Sigler
During the week of practice heading into Friday night’s clash with county and conference-rival Taylor, Western boys basketball coach Bart Miller made shooting a priority, putting his team through a heavier than normal amount of shooting-intensive drills.
It paid major dividends on gameday.
The Panthers buried 67 percent of their attempts from 3-point range on a 12-for-18 performance, helping the squad build an insurmountable lead before coasting to a 76-63 victory on Indiana National Guard Military Appreciation Night at Richard R. Rea Gymnasium.
“It was a good team win,” Miller said. “I just felt, looking at our percentages as a team, we have guys shooting it better than others. As a team, we needed to step up our shooting a little bit more overall. I believe the extra practice this week really worked out for us. When you have guys out there doing those kinds of things, it really just sends excitement through the whole team.”
Taylor left the gymnasium especially frustrated. The Titans (5-12, 1-5 Mid-Indiana Conference) hit five more shots than their Panther counterparts on 18 more shot attempts. Taylor committed fewer turnovers (18-14) than Western, but committed 19 fouls, which led to a 22-for-28 performance from the foul line for the Panthers.
Taylor entered the fourth quarter trailing by 22 at 60-38 before crawling back within 11 with just over two minutes to play before the comeback attempt stalled out.
“Any time a team is going to shoot 67 percent from the 3-point line, it’s a tough night,” Taylor coach Andy Lewman said. “And, I can think back to about seven or eight of them where we had a hand up on them. They were contested shots, and the whole thing is if you’re contesting shots, good things should come out of it. ... On paper, if they don’t shoot it so well, we’re where we want to be.”
Western (10-6, 4-2 MIC) was firing on all cylinders out of the gate and remained hot throughout the first three quarters.
The Panthers connected on seven of their first nine shots from the field to build an early 19-5 lead through the first six minutes of the contest.
Junior guard Evan Warden led the charge with three triples in the first eight minutes. He added another trey in the second quarter to finish the half with 16 points of 4-of-6 firing from 3.
Sophomore backcourt mate Des Balentine got into the act with a trio of 3-pointers in the second stanza to help the Panthers roar to a 42-24 halftime advantage, Western’s highest scoring first half of the season. The Panthers went 8 of 12 from downtown in the first half.
“It’s not rocket science,” Miller said. “Being able to shoot the ball well enables you to get back and get your defense set up. After a made bucket, [the other team] has to take the ball out, whereas a miss may help them get a guy flying out in transition and your defense suffers.”
The hot shooting continued. Warden, Kyle Mendenhall and Austin Weaver each knocked down a 3-pointer in the third quarter as the Panthers went 3 of 4 from long range in the stanza, helping them take a 22-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Warden led Western with 21 points and six rebounds. He took a blow to the inside of his right knee late in the contest, but walked off under his own power and isn’t expected to miss any time.
Balentine added 14 points, senior post Ronnie Smith added 13 points, Weaver and Austin Townsend both added nine, and Mendenhall scored eight on a superbly balanced night for the Panthers.
Challen Hodson enjoyed an outstanding performance in the losing cause with 26 points and six rebounds. Calvin Wheeler added 14 points on 7 of 10 shooting, and Nick Hoover added 10 points and five boards. Nathan Gotshall’s eight rebounds were a game high for the Titans.
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