By Bryan Gaskins
Tribune sports editor
A few minutes after Class 4A No. 9-ranked Kokomo put the wraps on a 49-40 victory over Richmond in a North Central Conference boys basketball showdown Friday night at Memorial Gym, the Wildkats came back out of the locker room and shared their celebration with their fans.
A special victory deserved a special celebration.
Kokomo finished NCC play 7-0, giving the Kats their third league title in four years and 17th all-time — but just their second undefeated title.
“It feels fantastic to be undefeated champion in the NCC, the second time in the history of our program to be undefeated,” said Junior All-Star candidate Tayler Persons, who had a terrific line of 21 points, 10 rebounds, six steals and three assists.
“It was one of the most intensified games I’ve ever played in my life,” he added. “Everyone was focused, intense.”
Kokomo’s other undefeated NCC championship came in 1996 when current coach Brian McCauley was a key player for the Kats.
McCauley loved the Kats’ championship effort Friday night.
“I am so proud of them,” he said. “They’re winners, they’re warriors. They find ways to win. It wasn’t pretty at times, but we got better on offense as the game went on and we made some key plays down the stretch.”
The Kats improved to 18-2 overall and extended their home winning streak to 26 games.
Richmond (14-8 overall, 5-2 NCC) had a shot at a share of the title, but had to settle for its third straight runner-up finish.
The Red Devils seemed poised to shock the Kats. The Devils led 18-16 at halftime at which point they had an 8-3 advantage in second-chance points, then bolted to a 28-20 lead midway through the third quarter.
Persons and LaBradford Sebree led the Kats on a 10-2 run over the rest of the quarter to forge a 30-all tie. Persons had a hoop-and-harm three-point play and a 3-pointer and Sebree scored the other four points, tying the game with a three-point play off a putback.
Persons noted the Kats remained confident in the face of the eight-point deficit in a low-possession game.
“Even if we’re down, we play as hard as we can,” he said. “It’s just amazing playing with a bunch of guys who know what to do and know how to play off each other. I just love my team so much.”
The squads traded jabs in the opening two minutes of the fourth quarter before Hakim Burnett gave the Kats the lead for good, knocking down a jumper for a 36-35 advantage at 6:12.
Kokomo clung to the one-point lead for more than two minutes. Richmond missed a pair of shots and Persons took a charge at 4:27. Persons followed with a 3-pointer off a high screen for a 39-35 lead at 3:53.
After Richmond answered with a basket to make it 39-37 at 3:24, Kokomo protected the lead with defensive stops. Sebree and Persons both had steals.
The Kats went up 41-37 when Erik Bowen scored inside off a Persons feed at 1:18. After Richmond missed a shot, Sebree split a pair of free throws at :54. The Kats then put the win away — Persons came up with a steal at :44, and Sebree scored off a Persons assist for a 44-37 lead at :28.
Richmond came no closer than six the rest of the way.
“It could have gone either way there and our players stepped up and really executed well,” McCauley said, noting the Kats denied the Devils second-chance points in the second half.
Persons made all kinds of plays in the fourth quarter. He scored six points, dished three assists and had two steals.
“I wanted this game so bad. My mindset in that fourth quarter was don’t let us lose,” he said.
Richmond coach Joe Luce tipped his hat to Persons, noting the Kat standout “willed his team to a different level” in the second half.
Luce also had praise for Kokomo’s program.
“I’ve known Kokomo players for a long time. I can tell you one thing — they strike me as winners and those guys displayed that [Friday],” he said. “I don’t owe them anything, I just have a lot of respect for what they have accomplished. They have mental toughness and a trust in the fact they’re going to find a way to get it done. You can’t pull it out of a magic bottle or make up a recipe, it’s just something that is in your heart and your mind and those guys have it.”
Richmond played without starting guard Davious Webster.
“He’s played really well, but at the end of the day, you play with the hand you’re dealt,” Luce said. “There are a lot of guys that win in Vegas not getting the best cards dealt to them. Obviously we didn’t play ours as well as we could have.”
Bowen finished with nine points and five boards for Kokomo. Sebree had eight points and Mykal Cox had five points and four assists.
Charles Hampton led Richmond with 17 points. Joel Okafor had 12 points, seven boards and four assists.
• Kokomo’s JV team took a 65-41 win to also cap a 7-0 NCC run. Marcelle Kenner led the JV team with 17 points and Jazimar Woodard had 15.
“I’m really proud of the JV guys and coach [Mike] Susong,” McCauley said.
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