By Pedro Velazco
Even though Eastern’s girls basketball team led Kokomo wire to wire Tuesday night, the Comets never felt they could relax. Wins in Memorial Gym don’t come often.
“The time, it just kept counting down: five minutes of defense, four minutes of defense just to finish it,” Eastern guard Brittany Neeley said. “And then it kind of hit me and [Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter] said in a time out to play until there are three zeros on the clock.”
When the clock hit 0:00, the scoreboard read Eastern 43, Kokomo 32. The last time the Comets beat Kokomo was the first time the teams played, in the 1976-77 season when the Greentown gang scored a two-point victory. The teams hadn’t met since a 1993 sectional appearance, prior to the arrival of class sports. Kokomo leads all-time series 8-2.
“It’s a tremendous honor to come and play here,” Dexter said. His Class 2A No. 5-ranked Comets improved to 5-0. “I really want to send out appreciation to [Kokomo coach] Jason Snyder for calling us when something opened up. I just really appreciate him stepping up and playing us and giving our kids a chance. This has been a dream for a lot of them, and for myself.”
Eastern scripted a dream finish for its golden opportunity by playing tight defense and making aggression on the offensive end pay off with trips to the free throw line. Eastern hit 19 of 25 freebies while Kokomo hit just five of seven and had trouble getting the ball into dangerous spots. Brittany Neeley scored a game-high 19 points, using her driving game to get to the line, where she hit 13 of 16 shots, and added nine rebounds. Sister Bethany Neeley added 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Ally Oyler added eight points including two key 3-point bombs. And Taylor Holliday grabbed six boards.
Eastern put the Kats down 12-2 with 4:01 left in the first quarter on a trey from Oyler and held the lead throughout. Kokomo fought back to a two-point deficit, 28-26 on a drive by Brayanna Fowler deep in the third quarter, but Bethany Neeley rattled home a trey to end the frame and the lead was never as close as a basket again.
“We definitely had to respond,” Brittany Neeley said. “They kept coming at us in the third quarter and we definitely had to keep fighting back to get the win.”
The Comets started taking time off the clock midway through the fourth quarter and iced the game with eight freebies by Brittany Neeley in the final minutes.
“We put them to the line way too many times,” Snyder said. “We knew they’re an excellent driving team. What’s frustrating with that is we were, the majority of the game, trying to play inside the 3-point line, trying to stop the drive, take away the drive. They’re a very good team, flat out.”
Kokomo won the third quarter to get back in the game, but the Comets won the fourth 12-6 to finish off the victory. Kokomo hit just 12 of 46 shots. Eastern didn’t shoot well (10 of 38) but the difference at the line more than made up for it. Eastern got inside and got fouled. Kokomo wasn’t able to do the same.
“The program is built on defense,” Brittany Neeley said. “We knew coming in here that offense wins games, defense wins championships, and this was kind of like a championship. We just had to shut down the paint — then it’s ours and don’t let anyone in there, and secure every play and put a period on it with a rebound.”
Anastacia Kirby led Kokomo with 11 points and nine rebounds. Allie Lowe came off the bench and snagged seven rebounds to go with four points. Kendra Ryker added seven points off the bench, and Fowler scored six.
“Even in the third quarter, where we were getting stops, we had some good looks that just didn’t go down,” Snyder said. “So we were not able to trim the lead on those possessions. Even though we won the quarter, those were very big possessions for the rest of the game.”
Dexter said the Comets designed their defense to protect against Kokomo’s ball screens and get quick help on people rolling to the hoop. They were wiling to give up looks outside — if the Kats moved the ball fast enough to find them — in order to keep safe inside.
“I think it worked out pretty good, not a ton of post baskets unless they got offensive rebounds,” he said. “We have a lot of respect for Anastacia and her ability to move people around in [the paint] so we put a lot of emphasis [on that] and I guess we’re willing to play the percentages on shooting.”
Kokomo (4-2) played without regulars Alanis Jones and Iesha Wallace, who picked up injuries in the victory over Muncie Central last Saturday.
“I was proud of the way the team continued to fight throughout the game,” he said. “This is a championship team in Eastern and that’s where we’re getting. I think we’ll learn some lessons from [Wednesday] night’s game to help us get there.”
Brittany Neeley called the game “definitely a huge confidence booster.” Dexter hopes it gives the Comets a lift.
“This is step five of the 21-step staircase up to the sectional, but afterwards I made it clear to them, this is a big step five,” Dexter said. “That’s why I wanted to play it. I added Tipton to the front end of our schedule last year. I wanted to add Kokomo. I want to be tested, and I want our kids to be tested. I think it can only breed confidence.”