BY PEDRO VELAZCO
When Kokomo’s boys basketball team found itself down 9-0 to North Central Conference rival Muncie Central midway through the first quarter Friday night, the Wildkats didn’t flinch or worry, they just kept plugging along.
Gradually, the Wildkats’ strengths turned the game their way. The Kats (4-0, 1-0 NCC) got tighter and more bothersome defensively, and found ways to score en route to a 49-35 victory.
“I thought that showed some toughness, too,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said. “Being down 9-0, kind of clawing back in it, only being down five at the quarter, and then taking the lead at half — that was huge. And then once you extend [our lead] to about eight [in the second half], they start to feel the pressure.”
Kokomo’s 2-3 zone bothered a Muncie Central team that is short on offensive weaponry and on the small side inside. But it didn’t stop with the 2-3 zone as the Kats got back in the game with opportunistic halfcourt traps in the first half, and then feasted in the passing lanes in the second half, leading to a 23-4 advantage in points off turnovers.
“It’s just energizing when you can create turnovers that lead to layups, and that kind of snowballs positively for us and negatively for the opponent,” McCauley said. The Kats forced Central into 20 turnovers.
Kokomo took a 22-19 lead into the half on a coast-to-coast dash by Tayler Persons where he turned a defensive rebound at one end into a layup at the buzzer. Central got a couple 3-pointers in the first few possessions of the third quarter to tie the game at 26-all at 6:50, but Central didn’t score again for the rest of the frame and the Kats took a 35-26 lead into the final quarter break.
Persons was at the heart of the effort. He had a team-high 16 points to go with seven rebounds. More importantly, he was active everywhere, fighting for rebounds and loose balls, pushing the ball to spark transition, or getting on the end of fast breaks.
“We’re outmanned here a little bit,” Central coach Matt Fine said, “especially if we allow [Persons] to get the ball in the open floor and get him in the middle of a press situation. He’s awfully tough to stop there. He’s as good as we’ll see probably as far as attacking the basket.”
Told that Persons had 16 points, Fine said “I thought he had 30. That was the way it seemed.”
Far from a solo effort, two of Persons’ four buckets came from spectacular efforts from his teammates. In the third quarter, he and Mykal Cox combined to force Central into a turnover, Cox leaped to secure the ball, then, all in one movement, spun in midair and threw an outlet pass to Persons who was off to the races for a fast break hoop. Then in the fourth quarter, Hakim Burnett did the same thing from the same part of the floor, again leading to a fast-break hoop for Persons.
“I thought we did a good job of choosing our traps in our press and rotating that caused them some problems,” McCauley said. “I thought at appropriate times Hakim and Mykal and LaBradford [Sebree] did a good job getting deflections in our zone there. That was really the story of the game, our ability to create points off their turnovers.”
Burnett finished with 10 points, four assists and four steals in what McCauley called his best game. Sebree added nine points and three steals. And Cox had four assists including three great feeds to create hoops for Wildkat forward Erik Bowen. Inside, Bowen had eight points and eight rebounds, and Kylee Beheler had four points as the Kat inside players were too much for Central.
The Bearcats (1-2, 0-1) were led by starting guards Jabriel Allen (19 points) and Kaleb Mallory (10). Craig Owens pulled down eight rebounds.