By Josh Sigler
New Castle — The rugged, high-volume schedule finally caught up with the Class 4A No. 5-ranked Kokomo Wildkats Friday.
Two days after securing a championship in the first Old School Sectional Tournament at Memorial Gym, a crisp-cutting, fiery-shooting Pendleton Heights offense took advantage of Kokomo’s rubbery legs — a symptom of playing in its fourth game in four days — in a 69-53 victory in the consolation game of the City Securities Hall of Fame Classic here at New Castle Fieldhouse.
The Arabians took a one-point lead into the half, 29-28, but broke things open in the second half on the back of a fundamentally-sound screen slips and back cuts and four 3-pointers from senior guard Matt Wehner.
“To beat Pendleton Heights you have to be on your A game defensively, and we were exposed in the second half with some fatigue — both mental breakdowns and physical ones,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley lamented. “I don’t care who you are and how much toughness you have, when you give up easy baskets like that it’s disheartening.
“But, our guys played hard all week. I’m really proud of their effort.”
Butler recruit Kellen Dunham aided the Pendleton (8-2) victory cause with 22 points, but Wehner stole the show, finishing with a game-high 26 points. He hit 6 of 7 from 3-point range and finished the night 10 of 13 from the field. His high marks aided Pendleton’s 56.8-percent clip from the field (25 of 44).
The outside stroke helped spread of the Wildkats defense, where the Arabians took advantage of every seam it found for many good looks at the basket from in close. That, combined with 38-percent shooting performance in the second half spelled doom for Kokomo
“We had good timing and good ball movement, and when kids had an opportunity they cut well and we knocked in shots,” Pendleton coach Brian Hahn said. “We have to hit perimeter shots and [Friday] night we were able to, and that gave us an opportunity to win.”
Kokomo guard D.J. Balentine poured in 28 points in the Wildkats’ 71-68 loss to Indianapolis North Central in the afternoon semifinal, but battled leg cramps in the consolation contest and finished with 12 points and seven rebounds on 5-of-16 firing from the floor. The Mr. Basketball candidate and Evansville commit reached the 1,000-point mark for his career in the semifinal, becoming the 11th Wildkat boy to do so. Despite the loss, he and his teammates felt fortunate to be a part of the tournament, which featured some of the state’s top prep basketball talent.
“This was a great experience,” he said. “The top teams in the state play in this, and it was great for all the fans to see and for us to be a part of. This was great competition to get us ready for what we’re going to see in the tournament.”
Balentine was named to the All-Tournament team after scoring 40 points in two games Friday.
“I felt pretty good about my performance. It could have been a bit better in the second game, but the muscles in my legs weren’t the best,” he added. “We have a grudge after this tournament. Playing four games in four days, we felt like we could still come out here and compete with the top teams. We leave here feeling like we need to prove a point come March.”
Erik Bowen provided a spark off the bench for Kokomo (7-3) with 12 points, sharing team-high honors with Balentine. Bowen, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, also pulled down six boards in just over 13 minutes. Fellow sophomore Taylor Persons added 10 points and seven rebounds.
No. 1 North Central 71, No. 5 Kokomo 68
The Class 4A No. 5-ranked Kokomo Wildkats fell to 4A No. 1 Indianapolis North Central in the first round, spoiling D.J. Balentine’s 1,000 career-points milestone.
The Wildkats led by as many as seven in the second half, but connected on just one of their first eight field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, allowing the Panthers to snatch momentum before holding Kokomo off in the closing seconds.
“That stretch was definitely the difference in the game,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said. “We needed a good start [to the fourth quarter], and we needed a little bit better shot selection. We didn’t come out and execute as well as we needed to, and that’s when [North Central point guard] Ronnie [Johnson] went on that spurt.
“It was a combination of us not executing quite as well as we needed to offensively, and it enabled North Central to play to its strength.”
Kokomo took a 58-56 lead into the final stanza after leading by as much as seven in the third quarter after back to back putbacks from Armon Bridgeforth and Tony Moses gave Kokomo a 51-44 advantage with 2:50 to play in the third.
Johnson, a Purdue commit, took advantage of Kokomo’s shaky start to the fourth which included an 0-for-4 clip from the field and two turnovers in the first 2:22. He scored a pair of layups in transition, and found Darius Latham for a post deuce to finish off a 10-0 run and give the Panthers a 64-58 lead with 5:17 to play.
Balentine entered the day needing 25 points to reach the 1,000-point mark from his career. He scored 23 in the first three periods on 8-of-15 shooting, including 5 of 9 from 3-point range. His sixth trey of the contest came from the corner with 58 seconds to play to put him over the milestone and pull Kokomo to within 67-66.
The Panthers hit 4 of 5 free throws in the final minute to help seal the win before Bridgeforth’s desperation, double-clutch 3 attempt missed the mark at the buzzer.
Bridgeforth added 12 points for the Kats, and LaBradford Sebree and Tayler Persons both finished with 10.
Johnson led the Panthers with 16 points.