By MARK SALUKE
Following a first quarter of five ties and three lead changes Friday night at Richard R. Rea Gymnasium, Eastern and Western were locked into a Mid-Indiana Conference boys basketball battle as the Panthers clung to a 13-10 lead.
That storyline held true for most of the next 24 minutes as well, with momentum swinging like a pendulum as cheers shifted from one section of bleachers to another before Western emerged victorious, 50-48, improving to 2-0 in conference play and 2-2 overall.
“Job accomplished,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “The goal at the start of the night was to be 2-0 in the MIC and .500 overall at the end of the game. We’re happy to get the win, but it sure wasn’t the prettiest or easiest.”
For the Comets (0-3, 0-1) it was the toughest loss to swallow thus far in the early season.
“Yes, it hurts the most,” Eastern coach Kyle Bedwell said. “It’s a cross-county rival, and our kids played hard. I feel like we keep saying that, but we keep bringing it to another level. Give Western credit. They took care of business at the end, which is when you need to take care of business.”
Eastern missed three chances to tie over the final 40 seconds, missing two shots on one possession and failing to convert a Western turnover its next trip down the floor.
Following Western’s miscue under its own basket at :25, the Comets called timeout, but couldn’t capitalize on the possession as K.J. Myers missed from outside and Western rebounded.
“They kind of knocked us out of what we were running,” Bedwell said. “We had another timeout and that was my fault for not calling it to set something else up.”
At the other end, Des Balentine missed the front end of a one-and-bonus with :09 showing but got his own rebound and the Panthers ran out the clock.
“We just gutted it out in the end, really,” Miller said. “We were careless with the ball, didn’t make good decisions a lot of the time, but give Eastern a ton of credit. When we had a chance to put a little bit of a knock-out punch on them, they came out throwing the punches.”
Behind a 10-2 second-quarter run, the Panthers pushed to their biggest lead of the night, a nine-point, 27-18 cushion with 1:57 on the clock.
The Comets closed the half with a 7-2 run courtesy of two Braden Gibson 3-pointers sandwiched around a Grant Cole free-throw to make it a 29-25 game at the half.
The Comets stormed out of the gate in the second half when Cole stole Western’s opening possession at midcourt and dunked at the other end, igniting an 11-2 Eastern run to make it 36-31 in favor of the visitors at 4:09.
Western answered with a 12-2 burst over the rest of the period, with Balentine scoring six straight to cap off the run and give the Panthers a 43-38 lead heading into the final frame.
Balentine scored 14 points for the Panthers, sharing top scoring honors with Austin Weaver, who came off the bench to knock down 4 of 5 treys. Ronnie Smith added 12 points. Austin Townsend snatched down a game-high 12 rebounds, including 10 in the first half, while Smith pulled down nine boards.
“Des showed up to play,” Miller said. “[Austin] Weaver knocked down some big shots for us. Austin [Townsend] and Ronnie [Smith] played great underneath. If they’re not getting those rebounds, we’re giving Eastern all the more shots and this very well could have turned into a loss.”
For the Comets, Cole led the way with 13 points, while Gibson added 12 and Myers chipped in 11.
“I give the kids a lot of credit for how hard they played,” Bedwell said. “I wasn’t sure how we would look because we were coming off the worst week of practice we’ve ever had, so I was glad to see the turnaround.”