BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — Northwestern and Western get the Mid-Indiana Conference boys basketball race rolling tonight with a date at Western’s Richard R. Rea Gym.
“We say this every year: You can’t win the conference with this first conference game and you can’t lose it, but you can really put yourself behind the 8-ball,” Western coach Bart Miller said of the game’s importance.
He’s hoping for another electric night between the close Howard County rivals.
“I thought the atmosphere for the [Nov. 27] Western-Kokomo game was outstanding, and I look for the atmosphere to be very similar, if not exact, between the two schools and their student sections,” he said.
Both teams dropped their openers on Nov. 27. Western fell 72-50 at Kokomo and Northwestern lost 52-50 at home to Madison-Grant. Improving has been the emphasis the last week-plus of practice.
“We really need to concentrate on taking care of the basketball,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said. “We felt like the number of turnovers we had against Madison-Grant put us in a bad position, not only in empty possessions and not getting shots up, but not being able to set our defense and Madison-Grant was able to convert off of our turnovers.”
Western found itself hurt on the glass in its opener.
“We really needed to work on rebounding,” Miller said. “Kokomo had a plus-18 advantage as far as second-chance points. We didn’t rebound, we didn’t block out well. If you don’t take care of rebounding, it’s going to be a long night no matter who you play.”
Neither Western or Northwestern has much size, but the Panthers’ emphasis on the boards will be tested by Northwestern, which typically fields a gritty squad.
Miller called the Purple Tigers “another really good Northwestern ballclub” and said what has his attention is “just the way their whole team, they hustle for every loose ball, every rebound, they’re just relentless in their effort. They’ve got [Graham] Ortmann and [Bliane] Brutus who can knock down outside shots, and Ortmann can get inside, and Brutus can get inside with his penetration.”
Gish is wary of Western’s ability to sting opponents with backcourt play.
“Obviously with [Evan] Warden and [Des] Balentine, they’re very good players that have the ability to get to the basket, the ability to hit the outside shot,” Gish said. “They have some good outside shooters around them as well. [Austin] Weaver is a very good shooter and does a nice job of filling his role. They really work hard at getting to the basket and making things happen through dribble penetration.”
• Western visits Lebanon on Saturday. Lebanon is 1-1 heading into tonight’s action.
“They’ve got a 6-5 senior forward in Nick Starkey who is real aggressive with the ball,” Miller said. “He can post up and take the ball to the basket with the dribble. Lebanon always shoots the ball well. I know they’re 1-1 right now but I don’t think their record is indicative of just how good they can be.”
The Miami County squads are in action tonight. Two of the rivals meet at Maconaquah as the Braves (0-1) host North Miami (0-1). Meanwhile, Peru (0-1) entertains Wabash (1-1).
Less than a week after the football state final game, Tipton hits the hardwood for the first time with a home date against Northfield (0-1).
In tournament play, Cass (1-1) faces Pioneer (0-2) at 6:30 p.m. in the third-place game of the Cass County Tournament at Logansport, and Clinton Central (1-1) faces Delphi (2-0) in the Delphi Classic.
KOKOMO (1-0) AT FISHERS (0-2)
The Wildkats get back on court for the first time since their Nov. 27 victory over Western when they visit a Fishers squad which has come up on the short end against some high-level competition in the Indianapolis area.
Fishers, which plays at Brownsburg today, lost 80-71 to Class 4A No. 10 Hamilton Southeastern, and lost 83-76 to 4A No. 3 Pike in overtime.
“I think they’re one of the best teams in the state,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said. “They’ve probably played the hardest schedule in the state up to this point.
“They play very good together, they have great offensive transition, they mix up their defenses well, they’re strong and physical. They’re good shooters, good passers.”
After the Kats’ season-opening victory, McCauley has put an emphasis on getting better on team defense, and also handling pressure.
“One thing that Western didn’t do was apply a lot of pressure and we’ve tried to improve our offense versus pressure defense because we know that’s coming, and it’ll start Saturday night against Fishers,” McCauley said. “If we start turning it over, then they’ll just turn up the heat.”
In Howard County, Eastern (0-1) hosts Eastbrook (1-1) and Taylor (0-1) hosts Oak Hill (0-2). Tipton is in action again with a road game at Frankton (2-0).
Play concludes Saturday in the Delphi Classic as Clinton Central and Carroll take part in the eight-team tourney.
WEEKEND SCHEDULE JV games start at 6 p.m. unless otherwise noted. TODAY Northwestern at Western North Miami at Maconaquah Wabash at Peru Clinton Central at Delphi + 6:30 -- Northfield at Tipton 6:30 -- Cass vs. Pioneer at Logansport + SATURDAY Kokomo at Fishers Eastbrook at Eastern Oak Hill at Taylor Western at Lebanon Tipton at Frankton TBD -- Carroll vs. TBD, Clinton Central vs. TBD at Delphi + + Tournament games; varsity only.